How the Way Americans Learned to Recycle Obscures a Global Industry

Cardboard bails fill Camp Pendleton's $3.5 million dollar recycling center which produces one third of the Corps' recycling profits. The money, after paying for operating costs, is then used to pay for further environmental protection efforts or moral boosting events.

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Editor’s NoteThis post is the first post in the “Seeds 2: New Research in Environmental History” series cosponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects, publicising the work of early-career environmental historians. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues. 

by Jon Hazlett 

This July, China notified the World Trade Organization that it planned to begin banning the importation of certain types of “foreign garbage” perceived as a threat to the Chinese environment. The proposed ban includes numerous types of waste plastic and unsorted paper that are commonly collected as recyclable items in the United States. This announcement sent shock waves through the recycling industry. Large, multi-national garbage hauling corporations like Waste Management Inc., have already begun to redirect shipments of lower grade waste plastic to alternative destinations. Meanwhile, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the primary trade association for the array of companies involved with recycling, called the ban “catastrophic” for the industry. Given recycling’s ubiquitous status as a “green” practice in municipalities throughout the United States, it is striking that neither organization expressed concern about the status of local collection programs or the potential environmental effects the ban may bring to the United States.

Despite the panic among recycling companies, most American households diligently filling their recycling bins have not heard about the Chinese ban. How is it that a potentially “catastrophic” event does not ring alarm bells for consumers concerned with environmental protection? And why is an industry, built on the “ecological” practice of recycling, seemingly unconcerned about the environmental consequences of this ban? The answer lies in the ways Americans have been trained to think about recycling.

Read the rest of this articles at Edge Effects here… 


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Jessica DeWitt is a historian of the American and Canadian environment, editor, and digital communications strategist. She is an editor and social media editor for NiCHE.

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