Taking Out the Trash: What We Get Wrong About Recycling

How a wandering trash barge convinced Americans to recycle

May 2022

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

America. It’s one of the most beautiful countries on Earth. And, to their credit, Americans want to keep it that way.

Now, we haven’t always been the best stewards of the land. But in the second half of the twentieth century, we started to get a lot better about protecting the environment and cleaning up our waste.

A great moment in American history.

Well … kinda.

I mean, our heart was in the right place. But it turns out … we got a lot of things wrong.

Like, a shocking amount of things wrong.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

Look, America, let’s be honest with ourselves: For a lot of our history … we were kind of gross.

Our cities were filthy.

We turned parts of the Midwest into a Dust Bowl.

We set a river on fire — multiple times. Seriously, do you know how hard that is to do? i

Thankfully, America has gotten a lot more environmentally conscious over the years. And it’s not just the work of activists and policymakers. Everyday citizens are doing their part too.

The place where you can see this most acutely is recycling … which up until the middle of the 20th century was something that Americans basically didn’t do.ii

Though anti-litter campaigns started in earnest in the 1950s, the movement didn’t really take off until the 1980s.

So, what changed? A big part of the story was a trash barge out of New York called the Mobro. In 1987, the Mobro was attempting to ship trash from Long Island to a landfill in North Carolina … until unsubstantiated rumors that it was carrying hazardous medical waste led the freaked-out officials in North Carolina to turn it away. Then it went to Louisiana. Where they did the same thing. And then Belize. And Mexico. And the Bahamas.

The Mobro ended up spending six months at sea trying to find a place that would take its trash. And, Americans became obsessed with coverage of this trash barge.

That’s how bored this country was before the internet.

The Mobro had two big — and related — effects. First, the media reporting around it convinced Americans that we were running out of landfill space to dispose of our trash.iii And second, it convinced them that the solution was recycling — not least because Greenpeace hung a banner to that effect on the Mobro when it eventually had to bring the trash back to New York.

Here's the thing, though: Neither of those claims were really true.

While small and unsanitary landfills were being shut down in the ‘80s, that didn’t mean we were running out of space. They were just replaced by larger, safer, more efficient ones. In fact, it’s been estimated that if you took just the land in the country that’s available for grazing — and then used just one-tenth of one percent of it — it could hold all the waste Americans will produce over the next 1,000 years.iv

As for recycling … well, it’s complicated. There are plenty of circumstances where recycling makes sense.

More than 90 percent of the greenhouse gas reductions from recycling come from paper, cardboard, and metals like aluminum.v And they’re also the materials that make the most economic sense to recycle.

[RECORD SCRATCH]

Yeah: economic. Recycling isn’t cost-free. If the value of the material being recycled is less than the cost of recycling it, you’ve got a problem.

Take plastic, for instance.

There are so many different varieties of plastic that they’re almost impossible to sort efficiently. Most of it degrades with each reuse. Making new plastic is actually cheaper than recycling old plastic. And the newest, high-tech methods of recycling it generate carbon emissions 55 times higher than just putting it in a landfill.vi

So, with all those difficulties, how does the plastic you throw in the recycling bin get taken care of? Well, quite often the answer is … it doesn’t.

As the Sierra Club has reported, for decades about half of it was just shipped off to China, where much of it was never actually recycled.vii That ground to a halt, however, when the Chinese government decided to stop taking foreign waste in 2017, as part of a program Beijing called Operation National Sword.

Seriously, that was the name. So metal, these guys.

Now, in some respects, that was a good thing. Most of the plastic waste in the world’s oceans, after all, comes from the developing countries we’ve shipped our “recycled” trash to.viii On the other hand, however, losing that option also made recycling a lot more expensive.

Shipping the same waste to processing plants within the United States rather than overseas … can be 10 times as costly.ix And now many places that used to turn a profit on the materials they recycled … are losing money. Prince George’s County, Maryland made $750,000 on its recyclables in 2017. A year later, they lost $2.7 million.x Recycling became so expensive that hundreds of local governments just ended their programs altogether.xi

But here’s the good news. There’s at least one category where we could profitably be recycling more: electronic waste, the remains of discarded computers, cell phones, TVs and the like.

In recent years, only about 30 percent of e-waste has been recycledxii — which doesn’t make much sense. Not only is it potentially toxic to put in a landfill, but it’s also packed with valuable metals and rare-earth elements of the kinds that we rely on for everything from consumer electronics to military technology.

It’s highly valuable, we’ve already got it, and if we don’t use it … we’ll only be more reliant on countries like China where many of those metals are mined.

Adding e-waste to the mix could save recycling as we know it. It could make the practice profitable again. It could be better for the environment. And it could even reduce tensions with foreign countries.

Which would be a good thing …

… wouldn’t want to have to set anyone’s rivers on fire.

Seriously, don’t test us. We’ll do it.

Sources

  1. The Cuyahoga River Caught Fire at Least a Dozen Times, but No One Cared Until 1969” (Lorraine Boissoneault) — Smithsonian Magazine
  2. Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling — U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  3. “The Big Stories Then in the Clear Light of Now” (Michael Winerip) — New York Times
  4. The Reign of Recycling” (John Tierney) — New York Times 
  5. Ibid.
  6. Surge Into Plastic Recycling by Chemicals and Oil Groups Meets Pushback — Financial Times
  7. The U.S. Recycling System Is Garbage” (Edward Humes) — Sierra, The Magazine of the Sierra Club
  8. Where Does the Plastic in Our Oceans Come From? — Our World In Data
  9. China’s Ban on Trash Imports Shifts Waste Crisis to Southeast Asia (Laura Parker) — National Geographic
  10. The U.S. Recycling System Is Garbage” (Edward Humes) — Sierra, The Magazine of the Sierra Club
  11. As Costs Skyrocket, More U.S. Cities Stop Recycling (Michael Corkery) — New York Times
  12. Municipal Recycling and Electronic Waste: An Environmental and Financial Opportunity — American Enterprise Institute

Shownotes

SOUND | Artlist: “They’re Coming” (Colton Dewberry), “Noi del Sud – Instrumental Version” (Orazio Saracino), “Bright” (Konstantin Garbuzyuk), “Amusement Park” (FASSounds), “So Bad – Instrumental Version” (Generation Lost) // Musicbed: “Liminal with Blurstem” (Brique a Braq) // Premiumbeat: “Seize Your Destiny” (Dan Phillipson)

FOOTAGE | ABC // CBS // NBC // Dekalb County Television // EPA, A/V Geeks: 5000 Dumps // Library of Congress: Byron, Arthur Rothstein // The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Bequest of George C. Stone, 1935 // Yale Center for British Art: William Alexander // Keep America Beautiful: The Crying Indian // New York Times // Los Angeles Times: Saturday May 13, 1990 Issue // Tampa Bay Times: 1976 Issue // Prelinger Archives: Heritage of Splendor (1963): Keep America Beautiful // The National Archives: John Gilroy // Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection: City of Lawrence // City of Madison WI // Akron Beacon Journal: July 1962 Issue // Lionsgate Television: Warner Bros. Production // The Sierra Club: Edward Humes // Getty: Inside Creative House, Bettmann / Contributor, Rick Maiman / Contributor, New York Daily News Archive / Contributor, Buzbuzzer, Douglas Sacha, Mint Images, Narvikk, Sean Gladwell, Kostsov, Daniel Allen, Neurone89, Guowei Ying, Ugurhan, D-Keine, Alex Potemkin// Adobe Stock: Lerm90, Unclepodger, Orelphoto, Magryt, Karepa, PaulPaladin, Castecodesign, Fortton // Storyblocks: Alixmillet, Patramansky, Hangtime Media, Icetray, Sightseven, Zuxela, Vivekfx, Tai11, Okanakdeniz, JaimeByrd, Frame Stock Footage, Mdlabdesign, Mazhora, Ifs, THmotion, Eduard_M, A Luna Blue// Flickr: Dennis Harper, Dolan Halbrook, Ioerror, Fairphone // Unsplash: Jasmin Sessler, Evan Demicoli, Photoholgic, Joshua Hoehne, Pedro Henrique, Timothy Rubby, Tim Mossholder, Frank Okay // Pexels: Steeze Kush, Pineapple Supply Co., Vitaliy Vlasov, Karolina Grabkowski, Pixabay, Anete Lusina// Tenor: Random444 // CreatorSet Green Screens // PNG Key // DAK4Blizzard // J.-H. Janßen // Muntaka Chasant // Michal Manas // Gillfoto // Seraaron // Wikimedia Commons // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.

Delve Deeper

Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.

Articles:

Bonus Content

To download or print the bonus content, click here.

More Videos

June 2022

America’s 50 Million Immigrants, Explained

The United States is home to more immigrants than any other country in the world. Here’s what the demographics look like.
Watch Now...

June 2022

America’s Coming National Debt Crisis

As of 2021, the federal government was in the hole by $23 trillion dollars. What happens when the bill comes due? 
Watch Now...