Main takeaway from our tour of the recycling center: Stop using so much stuff.

When 350 Fairfax did the tour of the recycling center where most of Fairfax County’s recycling goes, I was excited because I had been curious about how single-stream recycling works. “How do they sort all of that stuff out?” I wondered. “And how do they make sure the stuff that doesn’t belong gets taken out as well?”

I got those answers—and they are fascinating—but the main point I took away from the tour was unexpected. I left there determined to reduce my trash output in general, because it was painfully clear that recycling is not an answer to the mounting global trash problem.

They do a great job at American Recycling Center (ARC), and I encourage you to go do a tour. We have teamed up with Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions for another tour on Tuesday, October 23, at 10 a.m. Join us! You can sign up here.

However, even though ARC is a state-of-the-art facility and is doing great work, when you go there, you’re able to see what a huge amount of trash comes through and what a large percentage of it is not recyclable.

Tipping floor, where single-stream recycling is dumped for sorting.

The first thing you see is the tipping floor, where container trucks dump out the potential recyclables that come from the Fairfax County transfer station. The constant inflow of trucks was eye-opening; we create a lot of trash in a day here in Fairfax. Even more upsetting was the amount of stuff that was immediately set aside as not recyclable. (Pro tip: Do not bag your recyclables in a plastic garbage bag. The people working on the tipping floor do not open them and dump out your nicely cleaned recyclables—they just throw them away. I’m sorry to be the bearer of that bad news. Find the recycling guide here.)

“On any given day, about 30% of what comes in is contaminated or not recyclable,” said our tour guide, Hillary. “The main thing I hope everyone understands is that it’s really important to be sure your recyclables are clean and dry, or they will contaminate your entire bin.”

Everything that’s left after the initial sort gets loaded onto a conveyor belt and begins the next sorting process, which is amazing. Magnets pull out the steel cans. An optical sorter uses light to sense different types of plastic and blows them into the correct bins. Eddy currents between magnets react with aluminum to pull soda cans into their own bin. It’s cool, for sure.

Workers hand-sorting recycling

But I also saw how inexact it is and how much more unrecyclable or contaminated stuff ended up in the trash as it was picked out by workers along the belt. We also watched everything grind to a halt several times because plastic grocery bags or plastic film got stuck in the gears of the machinery. Of course, at the end we saw baled bricks of aluminum and paper, and that was heartening, but along the way, I mostly developed a feeling of amazement that anything actually gets recycled at all.

Baled bricks of aluminum for recycling

Making matters worse is China’s new recycling ban implemented early this year. As part of a broad antipollution campaign, China announced last summer that it no longer wanted to import “foreign garbage.” Since January 1, it has banned imports of various types of plastic and paper and tightened standards for materials it does accept.

According to the most recent figures from the Environmental Protection Agency, about one-third of the roughly 66 million tons of material that gets recycled in the U.S. each year is exported. The majority of those exports once went to China, but American scrap exports to China fell by about 35 percent just in the first two months of this year, after the ban was implemented.

The fate of plastic-specific recycling is even worse. As we’ve discussed in past blog posts, even plastic that gets recycled never goes away. And overall in the U.S., only about 9–12% of all plastic does get recycled. Now the Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC) has published a new engineering estimate showing plummeting recycling rates for plastic in the United States because of China’s ban. Author Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and PPC adviser, used U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data and industry data to estimate that the U.S. plastic recycling rate will sink to 4.4% in 2018. Dell estimates the recycling rate could drop as low as 2.9% in 2019 if plastic waste import bans are adopted by more countries in Asia.

Luckily, for now, the ban does not seem to be affecting our Fairfax recycling at ARC. “The biggest impact is the fact that newspaper prices have dropped 90% over the last one-plus year,” said Nancy Hessler-Spruill, Marketing Manager. “We will still recycle the same amount, it’s just not as lucrative.”

Even so, the experience showed me firsthand what I already knew: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is for real. Recycling should always be our last line of defense, not our first. The best place to start is at the reduce stage, and from here on out, “recycle” will be my last resort.

—Bobby Monacella