Episode 26 – What’s going on with the Recycling Crisis?

Discover how you can “green” your life by building a knowledge base of current, sustainable, and eco-savvy trends. This is Build Green Live Green.

In this episode, we will bring you up to date on the recycling crisis. We are here today with Jessica McNaughton and Alyssa Holland of CaraGreen.

JESSICA: Hi this is Jessica. 

ALYSSA: And this is Alyssa. 

JESSICA: We're here with our next episode of Build Green Live Green, and today we're going to give an update on the recycling crisis that initially was kind of limited to China, but at this point it's really impacting every country.

ALYSSA: Yeah, so you see reports of this happening from Malaysia to Australia and even here in the US. So, Jessica, do you want to give a recap of what we saw initially and kind of talk about how we're being affected now.

JESSICA: Sure. So we're almost two years into the National Sword Program, which was a move by China to stop taking trash from other countries, and it wasn't necessarily trash as much as it was recycling, some material that we had recycled and sorted on our end. But our facilities weren't as refined, or they weren't giving as high quality recycling over to China and it ended up being anywhere from 30 to 50 to 100 percent of the material in the container wasn't actually usable, and China would have to dispose of it. So they decided to tackle their own waste problem internally in China. And in order to do that they stopped accepting recycled materials from other countries. That had a trickledown effect for the rest of Southeast Asia. Material started going to the Philippines to Malaysia to Vietnam or Singapore, Thailand. And, you know, one by one those countries started taking the waste, running into the same problem. They ended up incinerating it in a lot of cases causing more pollution locally or dumping it locally. And again it was just this problem that China had is just being passed on to these other Southeast Asian Nations and it's gotten so out of control now that they're literally sending back 60, 80, 100 containers of recycled goods back to the home country that sent it there, because they're all contaminated.

ALYSSA: And when we get those containers sent back to us, you said that our recycling was not usable, what do we do with it? Can we clean it, can we use it?

JESSICA: Well, we don't really have the infrastructure to do that or we probably would have done it in the first place. So, it probably ends up in landfill and the domestic problem’s even larger than the material that's coming back, we no longer have an outlet for these recycled goods. As these countries no longer accept them, we are now having to manage our own waste here locally. And I would say for the first 12 to 18 months, which is where we are now, of this problem, we just sort of ignored it until it really became an issue and now you've got major municipalities just shutting down their recycling programs and saying, you know, “we can't manage our waste, we're just going to send it to landfill.” It has hit the home, it's hit the curb side and now it's a real problem that we're having to deal with. 

ALYSSA: And the facilities that are still up and running, are there major costs associated? How are they still running? How are they able to keep going?

JESSICA: Well there is a silver lining here. And when this first happened two years ago, when we started talking about it on our Build Green Live Green podcast, and those episodes are available on the www.caragreen.com website at the podcast link, when we first started talking about this, initially the utopian idea was at the end of the day China would be dealing with their waste internally and the US would be dealing with their waste internally and effectively every country would have a closed-loop ecosystem for its own waste. We're at this really weird inflection point where we are starting to upgrade those facilities because we have to. We are getting a lot of investment into facilities because we have to. Interestingly a lot of that investment is coming from China. So, China has invested in paper, metal, plastic facilities here in the US, because that's feedstock for manufacturing over in China. So they're cleaning up the garbage that we weren't set up to do by upgrading these facilities or building new facilities. There are two new facilities that I'm aware of right in South Carolina, which is near us, which have been set up recently to process some of that waste material. And they're designed to do it more effectively, cleaner than we've done in the past.

ALYSSA: Is there any update on if the US has plans to make their own facilities that can do the same thing?

JESSICA: What I’ve seen or read up on, basically you know I'm a Google Alert junkie for the recycling crisis, but what we're doing is actually more kind of in the US wheelhouse. Which is not, we don't tend to kind of go back and try to do a lot of things better, but we're investing in clean tech. So clean technology and stuff out in Silicon Valley and stuff where you've got a lot of these startups and using things like artificial intelligence to build into these facilities to do a better job at breaking the materials down, sorting the materials. We've got the technology to be able to do a better job sorting these things. So really installing that technology and there's a lot of startups that you know they know about this problem, people are throwing a lot of money. Venture capitalists are throwing a lot of money behind recycling solutions. So it's a really exciting time, I think. I see us at that tipping point where it's gone from, we have a problem, we have a problem, we have a problem and just complaining about it to starting to see people come up with solutions. 

ALYSSA: Just to step back for a second- when we talk about unusable recycled material, what does that mean? Is it just the wrong type? Is it dirty? Is it food waste?

JESSICA: Well there's a couple of ways to screw up your recycling bin, right? And I sadly, I see it at my friends’ houses, families houses and I have no shame picking something out of someone's recycling bin and throwing it in the garbage. But think about like the plastic bags that you can recycle at the grocery store. Just because they have a triangle on them, People think you can take those and throw them in the bin with everything else. That really screws up the recycling machine. That thin plastic is meant to be recycled at the grocery store. It goes through a different process, goes through a different system. So keep it out of your recycling bin. Styrofoam, just because it has that symbol on it, it cannot be recycled. It cannot go in the recycling bin. So just knowing those things- and it's an education. Those are the ones that are just kind of general knowledge that, if you just looked at your municipality's website, they will give you a list of what you can put in your bin. The other thing is food waste. You know, you look in your, you bought cottage cheese, if people actually eat cottage cheese, but you buy some or yogurt, my husband used to buy that non-fat yogurt. We’d eat like a cup of it and the rest of it would sit there, it would go bad. You have to dump the rest of it out, rinse out the container before you put it in the bin. Pizza boxes, can't recycle pizza boxes. All that grease in there really renders those paper fibers useless. Tissue paper. You can't recycle tissue paper. So there's little things like that, again it's just knowledge. But it does contaminate and we're not careful and we don't take the time to learn what can go in that bin. So we either don't recycle or we recycle wrong. And that's where the contamination happens. 

ALYSSA: And that sounds almost as harmful as not recycling at all because you're ruining it for everyone else, right? 

JESSICA: Exactly. You're taking all the work that you know your whole neighborhood did to recycle a container-load of plastic and, you know, you threw in eight pizza boxes and the whole thing's destroyed or can't be recycled and has to go into a landfill.

ALYSSA: So another question I have about these processes, how we're now figuring out how to handle this a bit better, is that affecting what we see being used in recycled materials?

JESSICA: Yes. So why is CaraGreen talking about this? We're talking about it because we use healthier building products and healthier for us means healthier for you as an individual or healthier for the planet and healthier for the built environment. So we really look at health as kind of an all-encompassing thing and minimizing waste is really healthy. Our utopian goal here, again, is this circular economy where you build a building out of waste materials and you can break it back down and reuse it again. Right, so we're no longer using raw materials, but we're kind of repurposing things. So we're not going to get there overnight, but we can take the steps along the way. And this recycling crisis is a great opportunity to start creating products that use waste. And there's that company, it's a great idea, it's a company called Thread. They make fabric out of plastic waste. So, its spelt thread like Thread, T-H-R-E-A-D. And I like the idea of Thread because they let you trace the story of where the plastic comes from. So it really is, yeah, its thread, its fabric. But it's this idea of this story about being tied to an issue in what you're wearing and what you're supporting actually can make you feel good about where your shoes came from. They're partnered with Reebok and Timberland, you know, to create materials out of thread that have this, again this story, this lineage that you can trace back to where those plastic bottles came from. It's like Kirei EchoPanel. They use recycled plastic bottles and that's a great story to tell people. And we've partnered with elementAl, which, they make some really amazing beautiful surfaces that are translucent. Beautiful colors can be used for tables, walls, cladding, a bunch of different things. But the thing I really like about elementAl is elementAl launched when this recycling crisis happened and they first launched with their heavy line of products, which has recycled metal and recycled plastics. But they recently launched the elementAl LIGHT collection, which is ninety three percent recycled content and there are just not products like that on the market. So you know we're really excited to partner with elemental and really draw awareness to this recycling problem. So why is CaraGreen talking about this? Because our whole mantra is “Create Better” and we want to create better as a distributor. We want to work with partners that create better products and we want to work with architects and designers that design better buildings that are meant to have, be long lasting and meant to be reused and are really healthier building for the environment.

ALYSSA: Awesome. So really some calls to action regarding all of this change to what we know about the recycling sphere is individuals need to be more knowledgeable, more careful. Companies need to make that switch. So, like you said, Reebok is using this fabric from Thread. Is there a way that we can impact what companies use as consumers? 

JESSICA: As consumers, you know, I don't know. I think increasing awareness that social platforms like Instagram, some of the Instagram accounts that we follow, Modern Surfaces, CaraGreen Products. They really draw awareness to this on the building materials side. But I think in general on social media you're starting to see people really latch onto this and a lot of those product companies are, I know that we work with MaterialWise and they are actively looking to come out with alternatives to plasticizers and hazardous chemicals. They are doing all this analysis to come out with alternatives that are better for you and they're working with these leading clothing manufacturers and makeup manufacturers, search engines, you know, those big companies are really looking for replacement chemicals. So it's down to the chemical level that people are looking to do better. And I think when it comes to recycling, you know, we think about it now in a, kind of, in your home and how you recycle there. But our demand for recycled products and reused materials, that's driven, I think it's a company culture. So I don't think as individuals we can affect it as much as we can know through social media platforms. But also from a corporate level I think CaraGreen is going out there you know not to its own benefit, but to draw awareness to this issue, because we want to drive the built environment to be better for everyone, to save, basically, the planet.

ALYSSA: And again it's not just the recycling that we have an issue with, it's waste in general. So things that can't be recycled, minimizing that, everyone doing their own part to make this world healthier, basically.

JESSICA: Right. And I think that a lot of people would find it ironic that China has driven this paradigm shift in how we deal with waste in the world. And I think that's a positive thing and I think that, you know, we have a jaded view of China sometimes when it comes to materials and manufacturing. But I really think we, as a group, need to collectively look at the move they made here that took recycling to another level across the world.

ALYSSA: Well I think this has been a good update. And again, we have a recap of the initial start of this problem on our podcast in an earlier episode and we'll probably recap again once we hear more information, get more updates. 

JESSICA: Yep. And I did mention elementAl and we will be doing a short podcast introducing that line coming up soon and then also I mentioned MaterialWise and we're planning on having them as guests on our podcast and they can dig a little bit deeper into some of the, you know, large brands that are working on really making their products better.

ALYSSA: Awesome, well I'm certainly looking forward to it. 

JESSICA: This is Jessica. 

ALYSSA: And this is Alyssa. 

JESSICA: This is Build Green Live Green. Thanks for listening.