In the mid-2000s, a concept known as “single-stream” recycling came into practice in localities across America. New technology enabling recycling centers to easily separate materials allowed consumers to place their recyclables into a single bin for collection, rather than separating them prior to disposal.
At the time, the process was viewed by most as a win-win-win. Consumers would recycle more because it would be easier, collection costs would be reduced (somewhere between 5-25 percent), and recycling companies would make more money since there was more material to sell to remanufacturing centers. On this premise, a single-stream boom took off. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of American recycling communities using single-stream jumped from 20 to 64 percent. In this group was Fairfax County. By 2011, Fairfax County was recycling 933 tons of material and netting a profit of $16 per ton.
The problem, people soon found out, was that while switching to single-stream increased recycling volume, it also massively increased the amount of waste being placed in recycling bins that was not actually recyclable.
This meant widespread “contamination” of recycling not only in America, but also in Europe too. This was bad news for the people actually remanufacturing recycling, namely production centers in China.
Most Americans might not be aware, but the US has little to no remanufacturing infrastructure of its own. After collection and processing, almost all recycling is exported overseas. For nearly three decades, the world relied on cheap shipping networks to send almost half of its recycling to China for remanufacture.
This is why it came as a shock to the world’s recycling network when, in 2017, the Chinese government abruptly began tightening restrictions on acceptable contamination levels of imported recycling. China cited the adverse environmental effects of recycling contaminated materials, and by 2018 banned the import of everything but the purest recycled materials. This has caused a global recycling crisis, with many localities across the country struggling to find a destination other than the landfill for their recyclables.
Fairfax County has not been immune to these global shifts. In order to cope, the county has doubled down on its efforts to educate consumers on how to avoid contaminating their recycling. Erica Carter of the Fairfax County Department of Public Works told TysonsToday that this means discouraging over-recycling. “Most people want to recycle – and the issue has been that there’s too much ‘wishful recycling,’” Erica said. “We are telling people ‘when in doubt, leave it out.’”
Eric Forbes of the Fairfax County Solid Waste Management Program told TysonsToday that, wishful recycling can lead to frequent shut downs of recycling processing facilities, which, “shut down regularly to remove plastic bags, hoses, cords and other trash that becomes tangled in sorting machinery.” Forbes told TysonsToday that since the reforms in China, recycling facilities, “have added more staff and have slowed down.”
Carter and Forbes told TysonsToday that while there is a lot of concern about the future, so far the county has not had to send its recyclables straight to the landfill.
With the future uncertain, one thing is for sure, things have certainly changed since the county produced this gem: