Our Recycling Delusion

You likely have seen the news that China is no longer accepting material the U.S. sends for recycling. If you’re like me, your reaction was, What? We’re burning fossil fuels to ship our waste to the Far East? China’s reasons that most of what we sent was adulterated with garbage and could not be recycled.

If you’re thinking, okay, we’ll just recycle it at home, you’d be right, partly. There has been some investment in paper and plastic production from used materials. The news is mostly not good, though.

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Field Report From Alaska

The state of Alaska, as residents and tour guides are eager to point out, encompasses eleventy-jillion square miles of pristine wilderness inhabited by moose and caribou and salmon and eagles. The centerpiece of this natural beauty is Denali National Park, featuring – when cloud cover allows it to be seen – the mountain peak formerly known as McKinley. (The original namesake was a former U.S. president. “Denali” is not to honor oversized, fuel-slurping S.U.V.s and pickup trucks. The name comes from the First-Nation word for the “High One.”)

The National Park Service has stringent rules for the contractor operating tours along the one road through the park, including specifications for buses and their emissions. At the end of the tour, before passengers exit the bus, the driver/guide passes several bags down the aisle and explains the “Zero Landfill” project. One bag is for “krinklies,” the wrappers from nuts and trail mix and cookies and other items in box lunches. (They have found a way to recycle and repurpose what would other wise be garbage.) Another bag collects beverage containers. There is a sack to deposit any food scraps before folding the box-lunch boxes and dropping them in their own bag.

Collection receptacles for recyclable materials are at the rest areas along the Denali highway and scattered throughout the Visitor Center. Everywhere else in the state, not so much. In fact, not at all. (In Canada’s Yukon Territory, one can hardly turn around without bumping into a recycle bin.) In a week of wandering around Alaska, the only recycle collection I saw was a single bin – for paper only – at the Anchorage airport.

With only seven-hundred thousand people scattered about the eleventy-jillion square miles, why recycle? It will be centuries before there is no more room to dump their trash.

Alaskans like to talk about hunting and fishing and how one must be hardy and self-sufficient to live with the cold and dark winters. They don’t volunteer that every one of them is on welfare. Each Alaska citizen receives an annual payment from the Alaska Permanent Fund. The fund began with the opening of the Alaska pipeline and distributes oil revenue among the population. The oil flow has declined significantly the past few years and so has the income. Each Alaskan received $1,600 this year, down from an estimated $2,700. If things get any worse in the oil business, Alaska may need to consider an income tax or a sales tax.

Amazon Effect – Part 1

The city of San Francisco is about to put into effect a 14% increase in garbage-collection fees. The reason: the Internet. Well, not exactly the Internet itself, but on-line shopping and its attendant packaging.

As so-called brick-and-mortar stores lose business to Internet merchants, the increase in the waste & recycle stream is increasing proportionately. Cardboard, cellophane, polystyrene, clamshell containers, plastic shipping pillows are overwhelming recycling centers. San Francisco has banned plastic bags and foam trays, but the prohibitions don’t affect merchandise shipped from outside the city. (“The City” if you’re a SF resident.) The high-tech pedometer encased in its own packaging on the store shelf, is put inside more packaging to be shipped to you.

Recology, the company contracted to handle San Francisco’s waste – 625 tons of recycling per day – says it needs the increase to keep up with the volume and complexity of materials to be recycled. That reverse-osmosis-purified drinking water comes with three types of plastic: one for the bottle, another for the cap, and yes, a third for the label.