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Albuquerque Recycling Part 1: It's China's Fault!

Surprise! China doesn't want Albuquerque's waste!

Well, not anymore. In January of 2018, China said to hell with being the world's dumpster for plastic, paper, and scrap metals by placing overwhelming (think "reasonable," here) restrictions on the contamination the rest of the world was hiding in the recyclables it sold to China. 

For years, China was the world's preeminent recycling bin in a $5 billion annual business in which we create recyclables, we use recyclables, we dump recyclables into our curbside bins, trucks pick them up, trucks take them to sorting facilities, facilities mash them into bricks, trucks pick up the bricks, and the bricks are shipped to China. And China desperately wanted those bricks: we sell them plastics, and they sell them right back--in the form of Barbie dolls, fidget spinners, and Volvos

But China is done with that shit. You may, or may not, have heard about a 2016 documentary called "Plastic China." It's about an 11 year old girl whose family lives in the mountains of plastic waste, where they process and sell it to Chinese industry. The conditions are pretty horrifying, and the film seemingly made a massive impact on the Chinese perception of being the world's garbage bitch. 

As I see it, the rest of the world became extremely lazy on multiple fronts:

  1. Consumers don't sort recycling very well. I've caught myself doing ridiculous shit when it comes to recycling. I've had to remind myself that most plastic bags don't belong in the recycling--they're such a crap grade of plastic that they can't be reused (life pro tip: attend the one Isotopes game a year where they give out those beer-themed grocery totes, then collect as many as you need from the seats abandoned normally around the 4th inning). Consumers also suck about cleaning recyclables before dumping them curbside. Pizza still in that box? Dude. Didn't wash out that yogurt container? Bruh. More on this in a later post.
  2. Cities don't really set consumers (or sorting facilities) up for success when they implement recycling programs like the one we've got right here at home. One curbside bin for all recyclables is royal nightmare fuel. More on this in a later post.
  3. Sorting Facilities can, and often are, extremely shitty about accomplishing the one fundamental thing they exist to accomplish: sort recycling. But hey, you know, quarterly earnings and overhead or whatever. They became lazy because China would buy it anyway! Now we're hearing "China won't buy it, it's not our fault." Bullshit. More on this in a later post.

With potent audacity, the Premier of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, Li Keqiang, gave the World Trade Organization half a year's worth of notice that such a ban on contamination was coming. In that time, the major companies operating within the major contributing countries of the world's recyclables did exactly what you'd expect: nothing. Recyclables are piling up, degrading under exposure to the elements, and finding their way into the landfills, which seems, for now, to be the only answer.

With no end on the Chinese contamination ban in sight, infrastructure in New Mexico, and in the United States, generally, needs to change. It will cost money, it will take time, and it will be worth it. More on this, as well, to come soon.

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