It's a relationship that's been going on for decades. China sends products to the United States in shipping containers, then the United States sends the ship back filled with recycled material. They in turn use our recycled material to make more goods, and the cycle continues.
But that cycle may come to a stop.
It's all over the news: China has updated their environmental guidelines with a program called "the National Sword," saying they will only accept "clean recycling" and will no longer accept contaminated recycling, which accounts for a large part of the United States' recycling.
The issue stems from people not knowing exactly what they can and cannot recycle.
In Nashville: paper, plastic, and certain metals can be recycled through curbside recycling, but no plastic bags, food soiled items, electronics, hoses, or wires can be recycled. Some people even put trash in their recycling.
So why does this matter? Simply put, if you're not recycling the right way, you could be preventing tons and tons of materials from ever being recycled. Instead, that material will go straight to the landfill.
On Waste Management's website https://recycleoftenrecycleright.com/ - they put it bluntly: "It may seem like such a small detail - a wrong item in the recycling bin - but it represents a global problem that's preventing thousands of tons of recyclables from ever seeing a second life."
While many cities are working to try to accommodate the new regulations in China, others are focusing on ways to reduce and reuse products, like Leah Sherry with Turnip Green Creative Reuse, a non-profit aimed at diverting materials away from landfills to get them back to people who need them.
"We don't need to be blaming it on China, we need to take ownership. We have a lot of power just here," Sherry said, who is the executive director at the East Nashville non-profit. "Maybe it is time for everybody to focus more on that reduce, reuse part."
Sherry said Nashville is taking steps to clean up the recycling program through education to accommodate the China changes, which she said is a good thing to help educate people who have already tried to reduce and reuse their products.
"We do have a lot of great people at Public Works who are ordering new stickers for every bin in Nashville, for example, with very clear and updated information and multiple languages, so we're working hard to try to communicate those expectations," Sherry said.
Certain companies in Nashville, such as Hudgins Disposal, have had to change their business model due to the changes in China and the issue of contaminated recycling.
Hudgins has cut back their recycle pickup from twice a month to once a month, but they have kept their recycling fee the same.
It's unclear what a possible solution will be, other than continuing to educate the public on the correct way to recycle, and reducing and reusing as many products as possible.