Western States Responsible Recycling Alliance

PUBLICATION: Boston Globe

I thought we had reached a celebratory moment in our household when we produced by volume more recycling than trash. Into the bin they went: glass food jars (clink!), folded cardboard packaging (crunch!), and plastic clam-shell salad containers (crick!). They were the sounds of guilt-free jubilation.

Plastic that China no longer wants stacks up at E.L. Harvey and Sons in Westborough.
DAVID L RYAN/GLOBE FILE PHOTO

Not anymore. Chinese officials are no longer accepting many recyclable materials from abroad, including mixed paper and a range of plastics, in part because much of it was contaminated. As a result, what was once a profitable venture for many municipalities now comes at a major cost.

As recently as 10 months ago Boston made some revenue off its recyclables program by selling materials overseas, and now officials say we’re paying up to $30 per ton to haul it away.

“It used to be they took everything from us over there,” said Brian Coughlin, the city’s interim director of waste reduction. But today, “the markets overseas are demanding the cleanest possible product that you can send them.”

To be fair, many of us weren’t very good at recycling anyway. With the ubiquity of single-stream, people were putting items in the bin that didn’t belong there — a practice known to environmental advocates as “wish-cycling” or “optimistic recycling.” (Guilty.)

“For a long time we’ve taught citizens that recycling is free and magical. . . . That way has basically gone away,” said Edward Hsieh, executive director of MassRecycle, a nonprofit coalition that seeks to push pragmatic solutions for recycling in the state.

The first step to improving our recycling, environmental advocates say, comes well before the glass hits the bin. There’s a reason that “reduce” and “reuse” come first in the maxim: consumers should make an effort to do those first. What can’t be eliminated through those means should be recycled, and, only as a last resort, sent to the landfill.

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