It’s such an ingrained habit that I can hardly recall a time when I didn’t rinse out juice bottles and yogurt containers, flatten empty tissue and cereal boxes, and take reuseable cotton bags to the supermarket. Yet this year marks only the 50th anniversary of curbside recycling, which began in Madison, Wisconsin, with an American Paper Institute grant to test curbside collection of newspapers. Some may remember this earlier recycling: after carefully separating glossy, colored magazine and advertising sections from newsprint, the acceptable papers were set out in paper grocery bags alongside regular household trash. This method of collection remained popular for over a decade, with most communities limiting their collected recyclables to newspapers, until, in 1976, the EPA awarded a grant to test a “compartmentalized” recycling collection truck in Somerville and Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Efforts might have continued at this leisurely pace if not for the 1987 “garbage barge” fiasco, which created intense interest in recycling. The infamous barge was the result of an attempt by beleaguered officials on Long Island, New York, who saw landfill space running out and decided to try something new: they’d pay a private carting consortium to ship the trash to a North Carolina dump for a fraction of what it would cost to dispose of it in the Northeast. But North Carolina residents wanted nothing to do with the 3,100 tons of reeking refuse. After being turned away, the barge wandered from place to place for two months, until the original officials negotiated a deal to have the garbage burned in Brooklyn and its ash buried in an Islip town landfill.

In the wake of the barge episode, thousands of recycling programs were launched. It’s tempting to say, “We’ve come a long way, baby” — and we have. But the journey has had many ups and downs, which continue to this day. Recycling has, it seems, two partners. One, community recycling, is passionately supported by environmentalists and activists, whose passion sometimes exceeds their understanding of both the business of recycling and what it takes to get people to recycle correctly. Businesses and industries that make use of “used” materials are the practical partner. Without industry’s need for materials, the efforts of activists and environmentalists would result in barge filler; with it, recycling has a chance to complete the cycle of waste to renewal.



Beginning in the 1980s, China was the world’s main solid waste importer, filling its need for cheap raw materials to feed its growing economy. Up to 40 percent of U.S. scrap exports used to go to China, where the processing of these materials resulted in horrific polluting of the country’s air and water. As far back as 2013, China launched its Green Fence campaign, which prohibited unsorted shipments of recyclables from overseas. Their latest ban, which took effect in March, prohibited 24 kinds of solid wastes and lowered contamination thresholds to 0.5 percent. Its government has also announced a plan to completely ban plastic waste imports in 2019.

The bans and the resulting collapse in the marketing of waste is, again, part of the ups and downs in the business. Back in the early ’90s, curbside recycling expanded faster than existing markets could handle the waste and prices plummeted. However, by 1995, capacity had expanded in existing facilities, new ones opened, and prices once again rose with the demand for raw materials. But the United States has been hit hard by the latest Chinese ban, in part because of a lack of domestic processing facilities; there hasn’t been a new recycling plant built in the U.S. since 2003. While there’s still no official plan on how to deal with the excess scrap piling up at large city waste facilities, recyclers are already trying to identify domestic options rather than going overseas. It may take a while, but manufacturers will start to see those bales of plastic and cardboard as raw materials, not trash. Some Chinese contractors have even begun discussing moving their operations here. Existing processing facilities in the U.S. are also becoming more efficient and sophisticated.

Most of this market upset doesn’t have a lot of effect on those of us who faithfully clean and sort our bottles and cans at home, then haul them off to the local transfer station. It effects communities who have single-stream recycling, which typically creates a lower-quality recycled material. If you live in a town where each piece of material has already been hand-sorted by those who use the transfer station, you’re producing a higher-quality raw product. In St. George, Maine, for example, which has had a model recycling center and transfer station for years, the paper waste goes to Canada and a lot of the other materials stay in-state.They also have a composting operation on-site whose end product is boxed and sold back to town residents.

But regardless of how your trash is processed, there’s still a problem with all the low-quality stuff we toss. Manufacturers want raw materials, not trash. Paper, metals, PET and high-density polyethylene plastics are valuable; those one-use coffee stirrers are not. This is why some cities, including Berkeley, California, Fort Myers Beach, Florida, and Seattle, have enacted ordinances aimed at reducing single-use disposable foodware. Berkeley, a city striving toward zero waste, has gone the furthest, with a proposal being considered requiring only reusable foodware to be used for dine-in service, all foodware to be approved as recyclable or compostable in the city’s collection programs, food vendors to charge customers 25 cents for every disposable beverage cup and 25 cents for every disposable food container provided, and all disposable compostable straws, stirrers, cup spill plugs, napkins and utensils for takeout to be provided only upon request by the customer or at a self-serve station.

That’s a serious attack on the low-grade plastics that wind up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and makes it clear that recycling, after all its gains in 50 years, just isn’t going to be the sole answer in the next 50 years. Bear in mind that the whole world made less than 2 million tons of plastic in 1950. By 2015, annual production exceeded 320 million tons, only 9 percent of which is recycled. We incinerate another 12 percent, while the remaining 79 percent simply piles up in landfills or in nature. So the best kind of recycling in the future will be preventive: a combination of waste prevention, reuse, composting and, finally, recycling.