It turns out that the recycling that I grew up with in the 1970s and 1980s was a response by the industry to try to address the rising amount of waste being generated in the post-World War II era of increased consumer spending and single-use packaging. However, it is worth noting that recycling is an activity which has been a part of human societies practically since history has been recorded. There is actually evidence of recycling activity dating back 13,000 years.

Archaeologists have deduced over time that recycling activities increase during times of distress or scarcity. This is still the case today as recycling activities have been less than consistent in this post-World War II era of disposable consumerism. As this article is being written, recycling and waste diversion rates stand at just shy of 35 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Despite the best efforts to increase waste diversion rates in America by the EPA, various states and municipalities, and millions of citizen volunteers, the recycling industry faces enormous challenges moving forward.

Over the course of the last 20 to 30 years, the recycling industries in America, Canada, Europe, Australia and South Korea have all come to rely upon China to take their recyclables — and the growing economy in China found a use for these materials. As a result, the recycling industries in each of these countries evolved and became more dependent on China.

However, the Chinese government has recently recognized that there have been detrimental environmental impacts associated with accepting these high quantities of recyclables. As a result, they have subsequently embarked upon what is being referred to as the National Sword policy, which seeks to ban “foreign garbage” from the Chinese mainland. This policy was announced in February 2017 and has been phased into effect since early 2018. It has resulted in full shipments of recyclables from America and other countries being rejected by China due to “contamination.”

The results of this policy are being felt across the U.S. In some cases, it has such a dramatic effect that it has led some municipalities to temporarily suspend their recycling activities. (The website keeps tabs on these impacts and does a remarkable job of keeping their website up-to-date with the latest news from each state.)

Whether or not recyclables are sent to China, or are processed here in the United States, contamination continues to be a major concern for the recycling industry.

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