Magda Ehlers

When you put your plastic cup into the recycling bin, you probably think it's headed to a nearby facility where it'll be broken down and then turned into another cup which you will eventually put into the recycling bin. But the process of recycling isn't as clean as we thought. Only 9.1% of plastics in the U.S. are recycled, and our recycling infrastructure is overwhelmed by that amount. Some recyclable plastic is sent to our landfills, while other recyclable plastic – one million tons, to be exact – are sent overseas. Yes, we're exporting trash.

In 2019, Waste Management, the U.S.'s largest trash hauler, said it sent almost one-quarter of its plastic recyclables overseas. Now, they've ended the practice, altogether. "In response to concerns about plastic in the environment, Waste Management is not shipping plastics collected on its residential recycling routes and processed in its single stream material recovery facilities to locations outside North America. The company is working to help establish responsible domestic markets for recycling and beneficial use of these materials," Waste Management said in a statement.

The change is a response to a recent outcry against the mess. Our plastics were out of sight, out of mind, until reports came in that wealthier countries were shipping low-grade recyclables to other, poorer countries.

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The Planet

Beirut Residents Protest Garbage Pile-Up In Their City

Waste has been sitting in the sun uncollected for a week after a major landfill was closed.

Image of uncollected garbage in Beirut by Twitter user Joseph Elahmar (@JosephElahmar)

The stench of garbage in Beirut had become so overwhelming that residents of the Lebanese city were compelled to protest last weekend, taking to the streets to demand that city officials double-down on trash collection efforts. Demonstrators even blocked a road leading to South Lebanon, chanting, “You stink!” as they marched.

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Curbside Shake-Up

A bold attempt to change the way 8 million New Yorkers take out the trash

Kathryn Garcia works in a 79-year-old granite Art Deco building overlooking Foley Square in Lower Manhattan. Its façade carries the names of great scientists and physicians: Hippocrates, Pasteur, Nightingale. Custom bronze medallions—Adonises in allegorical poses, farming, fishing, and harvesting—lining the wall above the side and rear entrances further hint at the building’s purpose. Known by New Yorkers as the “Health Building,” this is the home of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Health and Hospitals Corporation, and the Department of Sanitation.

On the 11th floor, colorful stickers of flowers and butterflies adorn the door marked “Commissioner of Sanitation.” New York has had 43 sanitation commissioners since the department was founded in 1881. The role was initially created to oversee the city’s street cleaners, and it was popularized in the late 19th century by Col. George Waring, a sanitary engineer who designed the drainage system in Central Park. As sanitation commissioner, Waring reformed the entire department, introducing new trash collection and street cleaning programs to deal with New York’s infamous “shin-deep” filth. A year after Waring became commissioner, the city threw him a parade to say thank you and later named an avenue in the North Bronx after him.

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