One Thing We Can Do: Fix Recycling

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Recycling in the United States is broken.

For years, we relied heavily on recycling operations in China to take our waste. But that came to an end in 2018, when Beijing barred the import of recycling materials. The result is a waste crisis that has caused at least dozens of municipalities to cancel curbside recycling programs, with many more implementing partial cuts. Huge amounts of recyclables are now going to landfills.

“When the biggest export market is no longer willing to accept your material, there’s an imbalance between supply and demand,” said David Biderman, the executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. “That’s just Economics 101.”

So, how can we fix the system?

Experts say that we would need to implement changes across the board. Legislators may need to pass laws requiring manufacturers to use more recyclable materials, companies would need to build much-needed recycling infrastructure and people would need to use it properly.

Cities can’t do all that. But they can play an important role.

For a possible model, consider San Francisco, which runs one of the most successful waste-management programs in the United States. Through recycling and composting, the city manages to keep around 80 percent of its waste out of landfills.

That’s much higher than the American average. In 2017, the year before the Chinese ban, American cities were recycling and composting about 35 percent of their waste. Europeans do a bit better, keeping almost half of their municipal trash out of landfills on average.

San Francisco’s program has been years in the making. In 2000, it introduced the “fantastic three” citywide curbside collection program with separate, color-coded bins for recyclables, compost and trash. In 2009, it passed a law requiring residents and businesses to separate their waste.

City inspectors monitor bins to ensure that residents sort their waste correctly and leave tags if materials are found in the wrong bin. They can impose fines if they find repeat offenders.

Other policies include bans on hard-to-recycle items including single-use plastic bags and polystyrene packaging and an ordinance requiring food vendors to use compostable or recyclable food containers.

San Francisco’s system is built on a highly unusual partnership with a single waste company. That company, Recology, has had a monopoly on handling San Francisco’s waste for almost 90 years. That no-bid, no-franchise-fee concession has come under harsh criticism over the years.

Critics say that the city could save tens of millions of dollars if it were to break up Recology’s monopoly and award waste collection and processing contracts separately.

Supporters say, why mess with a system that gets results? Having a monopoly avoids a “race to the bottom,” said Robert Haley, zero-waste manager at the San Francisco Department of the Environment, as companies cut corners to win short-term contracts instead of focusing on broader waste reduction goals.

No matter where you stand on issues like regulation and market competition, the Chinese ban means that the United States recycling system needs an overhaul.

But that might not be as bad as it sounds, Mr. Biderman said.

“The ban is a challenge for recycling programs in the United States,” he said. “But it also creates huge opportunities to invest in domestic infrastructure to receive recovered material.”

The NOAA report, compiled in cooperation with NASA, echoed a finding by European scientists in early January.

Overall, 2019 was sweltering hot, and it closed out a blistering decade. The years from 2010 to 2019 were the hottest 10-year stretch ever recorded, with global temperature data falling in line with the warming trends predicted under climate change.

We might not think about heat in the ocean as much as we think about surface temperatures. An indicator of what’s happening roughly two meters above the earth’s surface and two meters below sea level, surface temperature data tends to reflect what most people feel in their day-to-day lives.

But the two are interconnected, and the oceans are working very hard right now. To date, they’ve absorbed roughly 93 percent of the heat associated with human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. That’s saved us from more severe surface warming.

“The ocean taking up a lot of that heating that we’ve caused is a good thing because it means that our atmosphere is not having to rise in temperature nearly as much as the amount of heat that we’re putting in,” said Olaf Jensen, an associate professor in the department of marine and coastal sciences at Rutgers University. “But it comes with some really terrible costs.”

Those costs, according to Dr. Jensen, include the loss of marine life and increasingly severe tropical storms — including hurricanes like Harvey, Maria and Irma — that feed on warm ocean waters.

Researchers are increasingly wary, though, about how much heat the oceans can continue to absorb. We also know that the oceans, under the right conditions, can release that heat back into the atmosphere and warm the planet’s surface. That’s what many researchers say happened in 2016, the hottest year on record.

“The oceans absorbing the heat is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Dr. Jensen said. “It’s not gone. It’s being stored there and it’s coming back to us. We’re in for a long period of warming, even after we stop heating the atmosphere.”

The sooner we stop heating the atmosphere, researchers say, the less heating we, and our grandchildren, will have to deal with down the line.