Palo Alto’s best reckoning, today, is that about 40% of its recyclable material stays in North America, where it’s supposed to be processed according to strict environmental and labor standards. The other roughly 60% goes abroad, mainly to Asia, with next to no transparency about its fate.
Experts say cities and towns across the United States would probably have similar difficulty in determining how much of their recyclables are actually recycled. “If you keep stuff out of landfill but just dump it in Laos, that’s not achieving a good goal,” said Martin Bourque of the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California, a group that advised Palo Alto in its pursuit of transparency. “That’s not what the whole idea was of recycling.”
The main obstacle that Palo Alto encountered was that the half-dozen companies that trade the city’s recyclables on world markets declined to name their trading partners, citing business reasons. Unable to force disclosure, Palo Alto city staff concluded they are stuck. “It is not possible to definitively determine whether the materials are being recycled properly or whether they may be causing environmental or social problems,” they wrote in a report published this year….
Palo Alto officials said they’ve taken two lessons from this saga. First, they want to recycle more in the U.S…. If made permanent, staff said, the change could increase the average citizen’s recycling bill by about $33 a year. The second lesson, City Manager Ed Shikada said, is that Palo Alto can’t transform the global recycling system alone. In March the city began talks with other interested California cities to discuss possible reforms at the local or state levels. The group includes San Jose, the largest city in the San Francisco Bay Area, and about a dozen other Northern California municipalities. Shikada said they might seek to expand recycling capacity in California, for instance, or ask lawmakers to impose new transparency requirements on companies that export recyclable goods.
The article cites World Bank estimates that only about 9% of waste ultimately gets recycled in East Asia and Pacific region. “The balance goes to landfills and incinerators or into nature, with local and global consequences…. Research suggests countries in Southeast Asia rank among the top global sources of ocean plastic.”
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