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Photo: Channi Anand/AP Photo

Confusing standards, poor habits, and a crackdown on contamination in China have limited the impact of recycling efforts worldwide.

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Every day well-meaning consumers stand befuddled in front of multi-colored trash bins, trying to parse out their fork, cup, plate and food scraps among the various bins. But it turns out the effort probably does more for the individual’s self-worth than the environment.

Earlier in 2018, China, the largest importer of recyclable materials in the world, announced it was raising its standards and rejecting a lot more shipments of dirty goods. A lot of recycling is ruined by contamination—the remnant tomato sauce in the jar, cheese stuck to the bottom of the pizza box and sticky fruit syrup in the yogurt cup.

“People are engaged in wish recycling,” says Mark Oldfield, public affairs director at CalRecycle, which runs the California recycling program. “They think: ‘This should be recycled. I’m going to put it in the bin.’”

Oldfield told the Los Angeles Times that he’s found dirty diapers, old batteries and garden hoses in recycling streams. It is too time-consuming and expensive to separate the refuse, so recyclers want clean streams of one type of material. Even paper envelopes with plastic address windows are shunned. China now rejects all recycling that is more than one-half of 1 percent contaminated.

“This policy change is already starting to have adverse impacts on California,” CalRecycle declared in a June bulletin, “and is resulting in more material being stockpiled at solid waste facilities and recycling centers or disposed of in landfills.”

The value of recycled materials has fallen, and roughly 1,000 recycling centers have closed in the last two years, leaving many communities with no place to redeem bottle deposits and leave their bundled cardboard boxes.

A plastic grocery bag is used on average for just 12 minutes, but it will not degrade for hundreds of years. At our current pace, one study estimates, there will be more pounds of plastic in the world’s oceans than pounds of fish by 2050.

This is “an incredibly reckless abuse of technology,” says Matt Wilkins, postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Science Outreach.

The focus, Wilkins and others say, should be eliminating the use of single-use plastics altogether, and new local and state policies placing fees on plastic bags and containers, and providing plastic straws only upon request, are a step in the right direction.