An Illustrated Explanation of the Crisis in Recycling

A global shift in the market has upended the recycling industry. The story of recycling's past provides direction for the future.

2 minute read

April 4, 2019, 6:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


zlikovec / Shutterstock

A series of illustrations by Katie Wheeler explains the current crisis in recycling and puts out a call to action to rethink the whole waste management process.

The illustrations reveal a history that might be unknown to many American consumers, about a ship named the Mobro in 1987 that created the controversy that birthed the environmental regulations and recycling programs ubiquitous in U.S. cities today.

Along the way, the illustrations explain multi-stream recycling vs. single-stream recycling, materials recovery facilities, contamination, mixed plastic, mixed paper, and the Chinese National Sword policy.

The Chinese National Sword policy happens to be the reason the U.S. recycling industry is in crisis in 2019. Designed to improve environmental conditions in China, the National Sword Policy banned several types of materials from entering China and set very high contamination rates on other kinds of material. "U.S. scrap plastic exports to China have fallen 90% since before the ban, and mixed paper exports have completely halted," explains Wheeler.

The illustrations continue from that point, describing the market evolution and facility upgrades that are already underway to respond to the global shift in the waste market. Still, there's a long way to go in the U.S. and in other countries around the world to overcome the critical challenges of waste management. The illustrations include a detailed explanation of the required course of action—one which will take all U.S. consumers to participate in recycling programs at a much higher level of education and require improved practices regarding single use containers and other waste generators.

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