The ‘Amazon effect’ is flooding a struggling recycling system with cardboard

Published Jan 23, 2020

Chinaʼs 2017 decision to turn away Americaʼs trash has left the recycling industry reeling as it figures out what to do with all the packaging online shoppers leave behind.

Recycling is a funny thing. For me, it’s almost a guilt-free act. “Sure, I’m using all of these boxes, but they’re recycled, so who cares?” But increasingly recycling and the trash bin seem like equivalent destinations. It’s even imaginable that recycling is worse, because recycled objects might travel farther before being dumped into a landfill anyway.

“Itʼs very difficult for American material recovery facilities to satisfy that standard because Americans put plastic bags and chewing gum and bowling balls and dirty diapers and everything else you can imagine into the recycling containers,” Biderman says. The strict rules also apply to plastic and other recyclables, but cardboard and mixed paper have seen the sharpest drops in prices.

I’m tempted to blame people: “It’s too bad we can’t be more considerate. Have you ever looked in the recycling bins in public receptacles?” Et cetera. But really, we should be designing systems that make this easy—or incentivize good behaviours somehow. Either way, the current situation is insufficient:

There has also been a noticeable shift in the source of the cardboard, says Coupland: itʼs coming from peoplesʼ homes instead of brick-and-mortar businesses. Thatʼs bad news, since retailers are less likely to generate cardboard thatʼs too filthy to be recycled. Consumersʼ cardboard boxes are often mixed with other, dirty recyclables like ketchup bottles or soda cans that spill their contents over the cardboard. On average, about 25 to 30 percent of the materials picked up by a recycling truck are too contaminated to go anywhere but a landfill or incinerator, Coupland says.