OPINION | Chris McCarthy: Recycling is a Now a Worldwide Crisis
We're experiencing a local problem with recycling and garbage, but it's not just a local issue. It's a worldwide crisis. Hopefully, I can help explain it.
Since the 1980's, China has been importing recyclable material from the United States, Europe and Japan to fuel their manufacturing economy. Over time a market was developed that led to materials that previously would have gone into a landfill as garbage now being sold to China at a profit. The Chinese receivers and the original producers enjoyed the relationship and the companies that moved the previously considered garbage profited from the win-win market.
In 2017, the Chinese decided to reduce the amount of recyclable material they would allow imported into their nation. They were the top destination of worldwide material formally considered garbage when they decided to halt imports. The environment in China is putrid, and the dictatorship is moving to clean it up. There is also a brewing trade conflict with the United States that should be considered as a motive.
ABC Disposal is a multi-generational local company with a large number of employees in the greater New Bedford area. The local company has contracts to pick up residential garbage and recyclables in New Bedford, Fairhaven and other towns. The agreements were based on the ability to sell recyclable materials into a market economy, and all the parties involved understood that economic factor when they signed on the dotted line.
The City of New Bedford has filed a lawsuit against ABC Disposal in a dispute over fees charged. The average person is rightfully alarmed when they hear about a lawsuit. However, the courts are a normal part of the world of government and business. The courts are there to solve disputes and to preserve records and to order the discovery of records. The Camara family and the City of New Bedford all understand the function of the courts, and neither is confused about the role of the lawsuit.
We garbage producers in the greater New Bedford area are not alone. The Chinese shift in policy has created a problem all over the world.
All the way across the continent, the garbage producers and the companies who pick it up at their homes are feeling the same squeeze as the SouthCoast. Laura Leebrick of Rogue Waste Systems in Oregon told National Public Radio:
"Right now, by definition, that material out there is garbage," she said. "It has no value. There is no demand for it in the marketplace. It's garbage."
With no Chinese option and with recyclables piling up, many haulers have to resort to bringing them to landfills. In an interview with WBSM's Phil Paleologos on Tuesday, ABC Disposal CEO Mike Camara said another option is bringing them to third-world countries for processing, countries that have far less stringent regulations than China. He said the danger in that is that the lack of regulations means more of the pollution recycling is supposed to avoid.
The Chinese change in recycling policy is more than a problem for New Bedford, Oregon and all the American cities and towns between the two oceans.
The United Kingdom recently celebrated the latest Royal wedding, but all its elegance belied the trash piling up in the country. In the UK, the local residents and officials are focused on municipal garbage just as much as the folks in the former colonies.
“You can already see the impact if you walk round some of our members’ yards," he told the paper. "Plastic is building up, and if you were to go around those yards in a couple of months’ time, the situation would be even worse.”
This is a worldwide problem, and it is going to require an education campaign to explain the way to manage the problem.
The public deserves a full briefing from their local government and the recycling experts on the best way to manage this part of modern society.
Chris McCarthy is the host of The Chris McCarthy Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Chris_topher_Mc. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.