Illustration for article titled Recycling Is Broken?

Interesting piece on Earther today - apparently our recyclables are too “contaminated” for the Chinese, who have stopped buying large quantities of them, wreaking havoc on the economics of the recycling industry in this country and leading some municipalities to modify or even eliminate recycling all together.


Some issues are completely understandable, like plastic bags tangling and jamming the machinery used to sort materials. But then one of the linked sources said this:

..when foods or liquids are placed in a recycling container they will ultimately saturate tons and tons of otherwise good paper and cardboard that they come into contact with. When paper and cardboard loses its quality, it also loses its ability to be recycled. It becomes trash.

Which is where I’m genuinely left scratching my head. Why does the cleanliness of the recyclables matter so much? Don’t the metals and plastics ultimately just get melted down, and the paper/cardboard turned into a pulp before reprocessing?

I imagine the chemicals involved in the pulping process would “wash” out any grease left in the pizza box, while the >1200° temperatures needed to melt those aluminum cans would leave little in the way of food residue... what am I missing here?


And since when is styrofoam not recyclable? Wasn’t that like the quintessential example of product that should be recycled so it doesn’t take 10,000 years to decompose in a landfill? Seems to me like recycling technology hasn’t kept up with the times.

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