Recycling has had a tough time economically for a while now. But as China continues a near-total ban on imports of the most common recyclables, it’s becoming not just costly but increasingly impossible to divert waste from landfills or, worse, waterways and other sensitive environments.
Charleston County and other regional governments have made an admirable commitment over the years to emphasize recycling even when it came at a modest cost to taxpayers. This is a sensible trade-off, since a clean, healthy Lowcountry offers benefits that can’t always be counted in dollars.
And it’s tentatively encouraging that the setback-plagued new Charleston County recycling facility appears to be on track to open next year, which will modernize and streamline local operations to best adapt to and compete in a shifting global market.
But over the long term, we’re going to need to gradually rethink our approach to recycling altogether.
Recycling’s dirty secret has long been that some amount of the stuff that goes in the recycling bin doesn’t ever actually get recycled.
Some of it can’t be. Certain combinations of materials can’t easily be separated, for example. And some materials — used paper towels, plastic wrap, coated cardboard, aerosol cans and many other common items — just can’t be effectively or safely reworked.
And some of it can’t be recycled profitably. If no company is willing to buy recycled material, it eventually gets thrown away or incinerated.
Those dynamics aren’t likely to change much in the near future, even if China rethinks its reluctance to take in the world’s recyclables. So it’s important to start considering how to cut back on the amount of waste — including recyclable waste — we generate in the first place.
Charleston and other Lowcountry communities like Mount Pleasant, Folly Beach and Isle of Palms have recently taken a step in that direction by passing bans on most plastic bags as well
as other throw-away items like plastic straws and foam containers.
Those bans cut back on difficult to recycle waste and keep harmful trash out of sensitive coastal ecosystems.
At an individual level, simple steps like buying second-hand clothes, looking for products with less packaging or repairing broken things rather than buying new ones can keep stuff out of the landfill and save money in the process.
If something just doesn’t “spark joy” anymore after a thorough Marie Kondo-style cleansing, let that trash become another person’s treasure by donating it instead of tossing it.
And definitely keep recycling. Even with the global headwinds facing the recycling industry, it’s a far preferable alternative to sending potentially reusable materials to the dump.
We’re fortunate in the Charleston area to live in a place where people value the natural environment we call home. We’re smart to pick leaders who have prioritized recycling and cutting back on waste.
And we can make sure that our region stays livable centuries into the future by reducing and reusing as much as possible.