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Recycling: A Broken System


Recycling is completely, irrevocably broken, like the planet’s ecosystems. See Baltimore County, Maryland (which is not the city, but the suburbs):

Baltimore County officials revealed this week that the county has not recycled glass materials for about seven years, though they are strongly urging residents to continue placing the items in their recycling bins.

The revelation was first circulated Friday on the Facebook page The Towson Flyer, shocking some residents who demanded answers about why the county has continued to collect glass for recycling. Glass bottles and jars of all colors were listed as acceptable materials on the county website’s recycling collection page Saturday morning.

Steve Lafferty, county sustainability officer, said it’s true the county has not recycled the material since 2013, the year it also opened a $23 million single-stream recycling facility in Cockeysville. Lafferty was hired to the newly created sustainability position in September 2019.

This problem of recyclable glass being thrown out was “inherited” from a previous administration, according to Sean Naron, spokesman for County Executive Johnny Olszewski.

Over the years, the county’s Department of Public Works encountered technical and financial limitations that meant it could no longer recycle glass at county municipal facilities.

“There are numerous issues with glass recycling, including increased presence of shredded paper in recycling streams which contaminates materials and is difficult to separate from broken glass fragments, in addition to other limitations on providing quality material,” Naron said in a statement.

There are a lot of issues and problems with recycling generally. First, it exists more to make people feel good about not doing anything important than actually recycling material. You put the stuff in the blue bin and you are an environmentally-conscious consumer, no matter how much you consume! Second, people just throw whatever in those things. There’s all sorts of trash. Now, when that blue bin gets picked up, people stop thinking about it. It’s the ultimate out of sight scenario. What are the working conditions like in a recycling facility? Is this something any of you have ever thought about? Who actually separates this stuff out? Is it safe? How much broken glass and sharp metal and rotting garbage do the workers deal with? Third, what is the market for recycled material? Without government subsidies, which I would fully support, it’s often just cheaper to make new glass and plastic and metal. Fourth, because of that, for a long time the strategy for recyclers was to ship it to places such as China. But does China want our trash anymore? No, and therefore especially for plastic, it’s become much harder to “recycle” it, since very little of it was actually recycled.

Like our entire relationship with the natural world, recycling needs a serious rethinking. The old mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” only works if people are committed to it and if they press government to be committed to it. But we are Americans and so we don’t fucking reduce. Reusing has value, but also has sanitation issues. Recycling was always the most possible of the three ideas, but it requires a whole system of marketing, facilities, laborers, etc. And right now, no one is investing in any of that and we aren’t paying attention to the dying of what was once a potentially really useful program.

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