Monday, August 4, 2008

"One man's trash..."

This report, which aired on NBC Nightly News earlier this summer, really caught my eye. It details the robust, booming business at one garbage-collection service turned sorting and shipping center of recyclables, which is based in Chicago Ridge. This company collects recycled plastics, metals, and paper products and ships them-- 700 tons worth each day, in fact-- to Asian markets such as China and India. These countries apparently have an insatiable desire to turn our discarded recyclables into new products and packaging. The on-air reporter went so far as to say that recycled materials are currently our largest export.

The report goes on to describe the pros and cons of exporting recyclables, like how it helps the environment by reducing deforestation, mining, and the processing of raw materials. It also costs less to make new products from existing scraps, and it's currently cheaper to send these scraps overseas (in the same ships that brought us craploads of imports) than it is to process them here. In an age where we're not making many products that other countries want to buy, it's nice to know that at least we have something on the trading table.

Among the downfalls are the fact that we don't yet have the ability to recycle all these products ourselves, which would create new jobs here at home in a growing and necessary industry. Some who commented on the story speculate that the recent increase in recalls of imported products are because of lax recycling standards overseas. Ergo, by sending them products to recycle, we're bringing this problem upon ourselves. I don't know what those standards are, and personally, I don't see the connection-- I thought most of the recalls were due to lead-based paint, not recycled plastics-- but I'm no expert, and anyways, that's not my focus here.

Whatever the glitches in this current system are, I am confident that they can and will be resolved, or at least improved upon, in the future. In the meantime, the main points that jumped out at me (and embedded themselves in my brain) are these:

  • The economy sucks and we don't export many products anymore
  • Somebody has found an export that is in very high demand
  • The country's largest export facility of its kind is in our own backyard
  • Developing countries are paying top dollar for this export and they can't seem to get enough of it
  • While the export isn't appealing or glamorous, it is keeping tons upon tons of garbage out of area landfills

Chicagoans could very easily help to bring more-- a LOT more-- money into the local economy simply by recycling, which would help to supply the continual and overwhelming demand from overseas. I've seen studies that report a dismal 8% to 15% participation rate in Chicago's recycling programs. Even a modest doubling or tripling of that number would significantly increase the number of products available for export. So, Chicago... Save the economy! Save the planet!

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