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Can Humanity Curb its Consumption and Effectively Recycle?

Time for a brief trip in the Way-Back Machine to when couples had large numbers of children, say, to work on the family farm. People were pretty frugal, so the oldest child’s clothing got passed down to the next in line, and so forth. The clothes were called hand-me-downs, and the methodology was definitely a thing. Modern folk might call it “recycling,” although recycling started centuries ago. Japan began reusing waste paper in the 11th century; in 1690s America, a mill near Philadelphia introduced the process to manufacture paper from recycled cotton and linen rags.

Today’s consumers can simply trash their unwanted items, but after decades of reciting the virtue of recycling, the trend has caught on just about everywhere in America. Generally people feel good about donating, for example, their used clothing to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. What those organizations can’t use is baled and sold by the container-load, mostly to sub-Saharan Africa. Because the second-hand clothing market has become a billion-dollar industry, it can also be pretty political, and some African governments have said that what many in the West think is a generous gesture actually prevents them from developing their own apparel industries.

Thus in March 2016, four East African countries raised tariffs on used clothing, which caused the main US trade group for used clothing to complain to trade officials that tariff increases were hurting their industry. The Trump administration applied pressure on the East African governments, and all except Rwanda scrapped the tariff increase. Unfortunately that government’s efforts to foster its domestic apparel industry have yielded few results, and Rwandans who work in the used clothing business now complain they are suffering.

America used to send the majority of its other exported recycling to China for processing, but in January, China banned the import of various types of plastic, paper, and scrap materials. Afterward, US scrap exports to China fell by about 35% in the first two months of 2018. Sadly, despite decades of American municipalities convincing consumers to recycle their waste, a whole lot of it is winding up in the local landfill anyway. A waste management executive notes: “There is a significant disruption occurring to US recycling programs. The concern is if this is the new normal.”

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