Recycling, Reduced

By J. Harvard Feldhouse

Youngstown State University students may have noticed the recycling bins on campus have been emptier than usual — that’s because YSU had to shorten the list of acceptable recyclables this semester due to changes in the global recycling market.

For the last few years, the YSU Recycling Program could take everything from water bottles, aluminum cans and copy paper to plastic Dunkin’ coffee cups, glass jars and magazines. Now, on the cusp of 2020, the new recyclables list resembles that of the year 2000.

“It feels like it’s a blast from the past in the materials that we couldn’t recycle beforehand that we were eventually able to over the years,” Daniel Kuzma, manager of YSU Recycling, said. “And now we’re going back to where recycling basically started: with office paper, aluminum cans, steel cans and plastic bottles.”

Dozens of items that used to be recyclable have been removed from the list of materials Youngstown State University Recycling accepts. Photo by J. Harvard Feldhouse/ The Jambar

People can still recycle clean plastic jars, water bottles, shampoo bottles, laundry detergent bottles, copy paper, aluminum soda cans, metal food cans, cardboard boxes and paperboard boxes such as cereal boxes.

Banned items include plastic Dunkin’ cups, clamshell food containers, Styrofoam, books, magazines, newspapers, glossy paper, all glass products, plastic wrap and any recyclable that has food or liquid still in it. 

In early 2018, China, the United States’ biggest importer of recyclables, stopped accepting U.S recyclables because it kept sending them materials contaminated by garbage. 

According to Lou Vega, director of the Mahoning County Green Team, China once accepted almost all U.S. recyclables. Now that China’s economy has stabilized, Chinese companies have tightened restrictions.  

“The simplest explanation to that is we have too much supply and very little demand,” Vega said.

“The largest purchaser of American recycling exports was China, and China has put out an initiative called ‘National Sword.’ Part of that initiative is they stopped taking about 24 commodities,” Vega added. “Now, since they’re not buying [recyclables] in China, the markets in India and in other countries aren’t making up for the demand that China had. So, what we have here is just a lot of additional products that we can’t offload.”

Tom Yanko, owner of Associated Paper Stock, a recycling company YSU collaborates with, said that the U.S. bears a lot of blame for the recycling market decline because it struggles to keep contaminants out of recycling.

According to Waste Management in an April 2018 article, 25% of items put in recycling bins are not recyclable. For example, only one half-finished cup of iced coffee can contaminate the entire bin.

“When [China] opens a shipping container and it stinks to high heaven, they close it up and send it back [to the U.S.],” Yanko said.

Returns from China can cost U.S. companies hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a result, many companies have stopped sending recyclables altogether or have drastically reduced what they send by restricting what municipalities and businesses can sell to them.

“So, a lot of people have been upset because the materials that they generate in large quantities of they can’t recycle,” Kuzma said. “But I’ve always suggested waste reduction is the key first step.”

These changes in the recycling market could reverse and return to last year’s standards, but American recyclers need to further inform themselves about recycling and actively engage in the activity.

“I would just encourage people to refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose and then recycle when it’s available, and recycle what you can,” Kuzma said.