In January 2018, China enacted the "National Sword" policy, banning the import of most plastic and other recyclables. In the year since, China's plastic imports have plummeted 99 percent, and, being that China has handled nearly half of the world's recyclable waste—and 70 percent of America's—for the past quarter century, that leaves a big question: Where's all that supposedly reusable trash going now?
The answer is, in the garbage.
a 2017 academic study found that China's ban, only 9 percent of discarded plastic was actually recycled, 12 percent was burned (into our atmosphere, you see), and the remaining 79 percent ended up in landfills or dumped, washing into our rivers and oceans. Of the three R's we've become so familiar with (reduce, reuse, recycle), that last one is a truly dirty word. Recycling is not a viable solution for our plastics problem because it is the problem. By giving the illusion that our recycling efforts are doing something, we do a disservice to ourselves and our planet.
So what can a person do on a personal, everyday level to cut down on plastics and non-recyclable materials? A great place to start is in the kitchen.
Do a Marie Kondo-style assessment of your kitchen plastics. Take stock of the packaging of the food, drinks and kitchen products you buy. Make a list of products you think you can find in either Earth-friendly packaging or, even better, no packaging at all. You will notice some things that come in plastic (produce, pasta, cookies, rice, dried beans) also come in paper packaging, or none whatsoever.
Among the worst waste offenders in any kitchen is the Keurig coffee maker. There is a reason John Sylvan regrets his invention: K-cups are not recyclable. If you have a Keurig, switch to 100 percent compostable coffee pods or get reusable
K-cups to fill with your own preferred grounds. If you're in the market for a new coffee maker altogether, opt for a glass pour-over with a steel mesh screen filter.
A pet peeve of many is the paper towel. Paper that comes wrapped in plastic is a double-whammy to the environment. While there are some things paper towels are good for, such as pressing tofu, dish towels work just as well. Large cotton flour sack towels can handle just about any spill, and smaller hand-size dish rags can be used for the ickier stuff, everything from muddy dog tracks to cat barf.
Under the sink you've probably got a collection of yummy-smelling, earth-friendly cleaners. In plastic bottles. Instead of continuing to buy these, consider reusing the containers and making your own cleaners. Most of those good-smelling concoctions are made of ingredients you already have in your home anyway, such as citrus, vinegar and baking soda.
On top of the sink you probably have the plastic petri dish otherwise known as a sponge. Consider instead a European dish towel that dries quickly and can be washed in the laundry or dishwasher. If you must have a sponge, get one made of natural cellulose from hemp, jute or cotton. On the subject of germ-collectors, steer clear of plastic cutting boards. Bamboo and wood chopping boards come from renewable resources and are actually safer than plastic; just be sure they are made with formaldehyde-free glue.
Saran wrap and cellophane are not recyclable. Fantastic alternatives are "bee cloths," beeswax-infused cloths that mimic the stickiness of plastic wrap, and cotton or linen bowl covers. For the ubiquitous Ziploc (TM, y'all) bag, consider a waxed fabric sandwich bag or sealable silicone freezer bags. These are washable, reusable and, in general, made from products kinder on our Earth than plastic.
If you need to store something long-term, instead of putting it in a plastic bag, collect different sizes of mason jars. There's always a good selection at thrift stores, making these extra bonus items already reused and imminently reusable.
For grocery shopping there are also some simple changes that can have a big impact. Mesh produce bags are a necessity. These can easily be carried in your shopping tote and take away the need for those rolls of plastic bags for items such as loose produce and bulk goods.
Another great idea for the grocery store is to bring your own to-go containers. If you are making deli selections, building a salad bar, getting some fresh-ground peanut butter, even soap, reuse plastics you already have. Keep a stash in your car along with your totes and produce bags.
Research brands and products online (Amazon and Grove Collaborative are good places to find products already vetted by others), then buy locally. Many grocery stores, big-box stores and kitchen supply stores such as Las Cosas Kitchen Shoppe sell everything you'll need to rid yourself of recycle-guilt. You'll never be perfect, but the ripple effect of living and leading by example is the first step to bigger change.