From the earliest age, we are taught to "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle" with each piece placed in the proper receptacle reaffirming our commitment to the environment. While plastic water bottles and grab 'n go containers bring a needed convenience to our daily lives, usage is staggering.
Looking at plastic water bottles alone, it was recently reported that one million were purchased globally per minute or 60 million per hour - a number that quickly adds up to a half a trillion plastic bottles purchased annually by 2021.
For the past 25 years, the United States has exported approximately one-third of these recyclable materials overseas for processing to be reused in the manufacturing of other goods, with China receiving the overwhelming majority. It should also be understood that during this same period, recycling facilities in Europe also sent their recyclables to China. That, however, has changed.
As part of an overarching anti-pollution campaign led by the Chinese Government to clean up its own environment, China has taken a consequential step back from the processing of "foreign garbage," enacting a ban on the import of specified plastics and significantly raising the quality standards of acceptable materials.
China's effort to clean up its environment has had a domino effect on recycling globally. These materials have flowed to other countries such as India and Vietnam who are unfortunately not as technologically equipped to handle the major influx of "foreign recyclables" ultimately leading these countries to enact similar restrictions on the quality of these materials resulting in a build-up of millions of tons of plastic that go unrecycled.
As global population and consumption grows and we as responsible environmental stewards increase our efforts to make the environment a better place for generations to come, we are now faced with a new question.
Globally, and domestically, where will all of this plastic go?
Currently, the unfortunate reality is that in response to lack of processing capacity, an overwhelming number of plastic bottles make their way to either a landfill or the ocean. In the next thirty years, it is estimated that the amount of plastic by weight in the ocean will surpass fish - posing a serious risk to marine life and a negative impact on our very shores.
The same plastic bottles present a different set of challenges to landfills. Researchers found that from 1950 through 2015, more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic had been generated with nearly 80% of it currently within our landfills. With increased consumption rates, the number is only expected to grow; it is anticipated that more than 12 billion tons of plastic will find its way to the landfills by 2050.
Wait. Wasn't the goal of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" to divert these materials from landfills?
The statistics and forecasts coupled with the recent Chinese export policy changes underscore an immediate need for sustainably-focused solutions and a global mission of achieving a zero-waste-to-landfill environment.
Utilizing automated sorting equipment and enhanced biological composting, a significant portion of the more than 100,000 tons of mixed waste Gold Medal collects annually is broken down on-site and converted to an EPA recognized Solid Recovered Fuel - achieving as much as 80% landfill diversion while reducing logistics, minimizing carbon impact and extending the life of existing landfills.
Today I am reminded of a quote by Albert Einstein, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." What was a great mission and strategy established decades ago to preserve our environment, may not be the strategy going forward.
Globally and locally, now is the time to think differently and shift our collective mindset towards Reducing, Reusing and utilizing new technologies to Recycle.
Michael Schmidt is a 15-year environmental services specialist and Executive Vice President of Strategic Growth and Development at Gold Medal Environmental - a market leader in municipal, commercial, and industrial solid waste collection.