An Insider’s Guide for What is Happening With Recycling

The Mistakes of Our Past

Once upon a time, when I was a child . . . I remember we would occasionally drive out into the country, past the dried up creek where we regularly tossed all of our household waste.

As an eight year old, I remember being fascinated with the ability to see all the broken toys of my past in one glance. Now I wonder what it looks like today. My guess is that most of those toys remain in almost the same state they were in then. More than thirty five years ago . . .

Recycling pickup doesn’t exist out here

You see, I lived in a rural area where there was no sanitation pickup service. Later on, once our little landfill became too full, my dad would simply burn our garbage in a big metal barrel. So all of our paper and plastic (gasp), and all the other items that were leftover from our day’s activities, just went up into the air we breathe.

Those were the good ole days.

On the Right Path

Recycling is catching on

I’ve been an avid recycler for most of my adult life. Moving to the green city of Portland, Oregon, in my early 20s pretty much cemented that.

The practice has been slow to catch on in this consumerism country. Just as recycling collection becomes more streamlined and the citizens begin to catch on en masse, we are suddenly losing our “takers.”

A Place for Our Waste

China used to accept our waste

For the past three decades, China has generously accepted a good majority of our trash flow. As they became a manufacturing giant, they would send large shipping containers to us full of cheap goods and then we would fill those newly emptied containers full of our recyclable waste.

Until 2018, the United States was sending 4000 shipping containers of our recyclables back to China daily.

A Change of Plans

Suddenly, China no longer wanted to accept our trash and the pollution it had brought them. They were becoming a world superpower, and the thought of being known as the world’s garbage dump was not appealing. They had their own plastics now, and didn’t want to buy ours anymore.

Our Waste Market Has Vanished

So now we are stuck sorting it all out. We had become so used to just buying as much crap as we wanted and then letting China deal with what was left. Out of sight, out of mind. But how can we possibly continue this philosophy when the evidence begins to stack up right in front of our eyes. We really can’t.

Unfortunately, plastics cost less to create in this country than to recycle, making it a tough sell for manufacturers.

Cities are Phasing Out Recycling

All over the country, local municipalities are now in the process of deciding whether or not they can afford to retain their current recycling programs. Many cities are choosing to incinerate at least a portion of it, adding to air pollution. There is a lot of labor involved, much of it due to the laziness of wishcycling (see video clip below). Americans also have a tendency not to properly clean the materials.

Wishcycling is bad for Recycling

Wastedive has published a breakdown of how every state in the union has been affected by China’s decision. My own city of Omaha recently made a decision to continue paying for their curbside pickup service after we nearly lost it due to costs.

New Ways of Doing

Rarely do things work in the exact same manner forever. What works one day may not work the next, and the same holds true for how we manage our waste.

Thankfully, there will always be innovators; and I do have faith that our recycling issues will be resolved to some extent. One possibility is an idea that several companies have come up with, a concept called Loop.


Loop is a recycling service that is being tested by several big name manufacturers, with around 300 products to start out.

Basically, the consumer would purchase one of these products with the inclusion of a small deposit for the reusable packaging. Once they are done with the product, they would schedule a free pickup, and then set the product on their doorstep in a reusable Loop tote.

While ideas like these are promising, they are limited in scope and are a ways from fruition. As always, our best defense against plastics and other waste buildup is to consume less.

What We Can do Now

  1. Buy less
  2. Avoid plastic
  3. Shop sustainably
  4. Stop “wishcycling”
  5. Follow my blog
What is happening to our recycling?



  1. Wow. What an eye-opening piece. I had no idea that our waste went to China in the first place, and I also had no idea we are keeping it now. I wonder what the reason is.

    Also shocking is how you had your own “personal landfill” growing up. I can see how something like that could shape you into finding ways to do better and be better as a person. Thank you for sharing that little (possibly embarrassing) part of your history.

    1. Thanks for reading, Beth! China has their own plastic waste now and also want to decrease their air pollution and not be seen as the world’s dump. I hadn’t really thought of the little landfill we had much, it just was what it was, growing up in a rural area I guess.

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