Opinion

Modern tale of trash, treasure | Rich Elfers

Did you ever wonder what became of all the aluminum cans, scrap paper and plastic containers you faithfully recycle every two weeks? It turns out that, according to a June 19, 2013, Christian Science Monitor article by Peter Ford, “China Puts up a Green Wall to U.S. Trash,” 75 percent of the aluminum, 60 percent of the paper and 50 percent of the plastic you put in the recycle bin ends up in China. At least until February of this year.

This “Green Fence” – blocking 20 percent of U.S. shipments and sending them back – is going to affect the U.S. and Europe. We’re going to have to adjust our habits as a result.

Sending China our recyclable trash has turned out to be the U.S.’ biggest export at $11.3 billion in 2011 with 23 million tons of scrap. China is resource poor and it needs the recycled plastic to make clothes and the scrap metal is turned into machines. The problem is that about 20 percent of the trash the Chinese receive is unusable and then has to be burned or buried – polluting the land and rivers with toxic runoff and the air with noxious smoke.

“The Green Fence” is what the Chinese call the newly enforced law to stop the import of dirty, unusable trash it receives. Part of the reason for importing this U.S. and European scrap is because China pays its workers only about $15 a day to process the recycling. Since China exports more than it imports from the U.S., it needs something to fill the holds of its ships returning from the U.S. West Coast.

Shipping prices to China are lower than shipping scrap metal to the Midwest by rail. The result of the Green Fence has been to raise the price of metals and plastics in China and to force U.S. recyclers to deal with more of our own scrap – to bury more of our plastic, or clean up the recyclables we send to China, or all three, so there is less unusable trash.

Environmentalists are pleased with the Green Fence because it will force American recyclers to become more creative and the American public to be more careful with its recycling. In other words, we’re being stopped from “kicking the can (the paper, and plastics) down the road” to China. We’ll have to pay what economists call, “the real cost” of our pollution and trash.

This should create more businesses and industries in this country to cope with the changes. We’ll have to become better at green technology. Other countries will buy our superior technology and we will become a leader in the field as China has done with solar panels. If we can create better methods of recycling, the planet will be cleaner and we’ll quit the practice of what economists call “moral hazard” – doing whatever we want because we don’t have to suffer the consequences of what we do.

It seems the garage sale adage applies: “What is one man’s trash is another’s treasure.” Perhaps the Chinese Green Fence will force the whole world to change its habits, benefiting us all.

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