Prior to 2018, 70% of the world’s plastic waste went to China - about seven million tons a year. In 2016, the United States was exporting almost 700,000 tons per year to China alone. The country had plenty of capacity to handle it and lots of cheap labor to process it.
It wasn’t long after that, China started to become concerned about the amount of waste going into its landfills. Much of the plastic was contaminated with things that made it difficult and expensive to recycle: paper, food waste, and plastic wrap (which is not recyclable). Beginning in January of 2018, China banned almost all imported recyclable waste, and by the end of that year, China took in less than one percent of its 2016 total.
That was almost four years ago, and our country is still struggling with inadequate systems to manage its recyclable and reusable materials. Unfortunately, Alabama sits at the bottom of the bin when it comes to recycling. According to a report issued in April of this year by top environmental consultancy Eunomia, with support from Ball Corporation, Alabama is among the ten states with the lowest recycling rate at only eleven percent.
Think about it. Do you thoroughly clean all the peanut butter out of the jar before placing it in recycling? Have you ever placed a pizza box in the recycle bin? Do you ever place take-out containers in the recycle bin with food on them? Have you ever placed plastic in the recycle bin without checking to make sure the number on the bottom is on the recycle list for your community? Did you even know there is a number on the plastic?
If you’ve done any of these things, you are like me and millions of other people who contribute to the high cost of recycling and the high volume of contamination in recycling.
Recycle Nation estimates 25% of the recycling in the United States is contaminated. Imagine the expense to separate one item from every four in your recycle bin: it’s a lot, and while it is a difficult conversation, the hard truth is that the separation process is simply unaffordable. Much of what we place in our residential recycle bins is contaminated, which inadvertently causes most of it to be placed in a landfill.
However, there is good news! Over the past decade, research has led to several innovations in recycling and reuse. One of those is just south of us in Montgomery. It’s called RePower South.
RePower South (RPS) provides economically sustainable recycling, waste recovery, and clean energy solutions to communities, industries, and consumers. The company website says it, “disrupts the traditional waste management model by processing mixed waste to recover recyclables and to produce a ReEngineered Feedstock (ReEF) from non-recyclable paper and plastic.”
RPS’s massive, automated plant, which uses magnets, blowers, and pickers, convert 50% of waste to reusable products. Twenty percent is reused for various recyclable products, while 30% is used for alternative fuel sources.