How a decision made in China affects Arizona's recycling programs

In a global economy, it is not unusual for decisions made on one end of the world to affect what goes on in the opposite end of the globe. So, when China decided in 2018 to limit the number of reusable materials it accepted from the United States (due to their recycling facilities becoming overwhelmed), many Arizona cities like Mesa, Tucson and Casa Grande were compelled to reduce or eliminate their recycling programs.

In this interview  with ASU Now, Rajesh Buch, a senior sustainability scientist with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability and director of the Rob and Melani Walton Sustainability Solutions Service spoke at length about China’s decision, its impact and offered helpful tips and solutions for becoming more sustainable. According to Buch, China’s decision to limit the import of plastic waste effectively shut down the financially viable market for high value plastics. And since there are no other profitable alternatives, many cities have had to limit their recycling programs just to minimize their operating costs. However, this doesn’t mean the world will produce less plastics. On the contrary, it is likely we will produce more.

“With the world’s population growing and rapidly urbanizing, the demand for plastics will only increase,” Buch said. “Our response needs to be how we more effectively collect, process and reuse plastic materials, so that it doesn’t end up in landfills, the oceans and waterways.”

It’s not an easy task.

By some estimates, there are more plastic in the oceans than there are fish and according to Buch, we’re all actually inhaling microplastics. It’s a huge problem but Buch believes there are certain pragmatic solutions available, one of which is reducing the number of items we buy which in turn reduces the amount of waste we produce. Another solution is to reuse “as much as the products we purchase for as long as possible and then become familiar with our local recycling options so almost everything that is discarded gets recycled.”