Mary Busker, glass

Recycling Crisis

By Lauren Goeke '19

LAS 410: Ecotones: Exploring Literature, Science, and History

This sense of wonder assignment for LAS 410 invites students to pursue a topic of their choice connected to our class goals. I appreciated Lauren’s narrative of travels and contrasts as well as her passion for researching solutions to help solve the “recycling crisis.” Lauren would like to thank Director of Sustainability Education Brian Campbell for his guidance in research for this project.

-Mary Stark

I vividly remember my trip to Alberta, Canada in the summer of 2018. The wheels touched down on the landing strip. I found myself in a foreign land where the landscape, people, and priorities were completely different from my home in St. Louis, Missouri—and different from the college I attend in Pella, Iowa. My parents, my friend Caitlyn, and I stayed in Canmore—population 14,000 (“Banff Facts”). When we stumbled upon the weekly Canmore market, we were happily surprised. Fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, jam, coffee, and baked goods filled the booths. We ate fresh foods in biodegradable bowls with wooden spoons while listening to live music. People shopped for local soap and shampoo bars, artwork, clothes, jewelry, and alcohol. My parents purchased glass bottles of mead made from local honey, and Caitlyn bought a necklace made from an old “B” typewriter key.

Caitlyn and I strolled into a store that, even from twenty feet away, smelled insanely good. The Rocky Mountain Soap Company, a natural beauty store, originated in Canmore before expanding across the country. According to Forbes, this small soap company is able to make eleven million dollars in sales per year, while also caring about the environment. Their offices feature LED lights, recycled carpets, reclaimed wood, and solar power. The most impressive aspect of the company, however, is their recyclable product packaging. Instead of using plastic that sits in a landfill for hundreds of years, like most of the beauty industry, they use durable, paper-based pots. They also started using cornstarch peanuts in their packaging instead of Styrofoam packing peanuts. The owners hope this environmentally-friendly business concept inspires other corporations in the future (Chhabra 2017).

Approximately fifteen miles away from Canmore is the town of Banff. This glorious town is home to the Banff National Park, a 2500-mile sanctuary that, in 1885, was Canada’s first national park. The park is a tourist destination for around four million people every year. It features thousands of 120 million year old glaciers and mountains (“Banff Facts”). As we drove towards the national park, I noticed the bridges across parts of the highway. They were green crossing paths for wildlife, so animals weren’t separated by the highways or forced to cross in front of cars. A genius idea.
When we arrived at the third overflow parking lot, we waited in line for forty minutes for a bus, which drove us twenty minutes to the national park. When we finally arrived at the park, I could not believe my eyes. The glacier water was blue and clear, and the mountains were more beautiful than any I had seen before. We hiked up a mountain path, stopping along the way to take in the landscape. In her collection Li Bai: A Homage To, the poet Jean Elizabeth Ward writes, “You ask me why I dwell in the green mountain; I smile and make no reply for my heart is free of care. As the peach-blossom flows downstream and is gone into the unknown, I have a world apart that is not among men.”

The following day, we rented mountain bikes from a local shop and rode around Canmore for a few hours. The sun beat down on us harshly, and we needed a short break. As we stopped at a picturesque spot along a river, two local women took a break from their run to jump into the icy cold water, pulling themselves out before the current could pull them too far out. They told us it was a popular spot to do so, and recommended that we set up our hammocks right above the rushing water. We set up our hammocks, one on top of the other. As my hammock stretched from a tree coated in brown sap to the long branch that dangled over the crystal-clear Bow River, I wondered how this would end. I jumped, landing in the hammock, fully aware that it would not be possible to remain dry when getting back on land afterwards, due to the position of the hammock. An hour passed as I listened to the water, fish, and birds, including a nearby woodpecker. I could see the fish and the bottom of the river, something that seemed completely foreign to me; any rivers near my hometown of St. Louis are mucky, brown, and disgusting.

Mary Busker, glass

Mary Busker, glass

Here, in Canmore, the Three Sisters mountain peaks command the sky in the background. Trees stretch as far as the eye could see. I felt incredibly relaxed and connected to nature. We waved to people rafting down the river as we fell into the water. The water felt icy cold and knocked the breath out of me. I barely remembered to reach up and grab the tree to stop the current from sweeping me away. I could not stop smiling and decided to run and jump in one more time before biking back into town.

My vacation in this gorgeous and environmentally aware paradise had flown by, and I found myself back in central Iowa writing a sustainability blog post for my work study job. Did you know that central Iowa sent twenty tons of paper to the landfill each day for four months last summer? Twenty tons per day. And this was not a mistake. So what happened? Mid America Recycling said that they could not find a single company to buy the paper. They tried stockpiling the paper for a while, but eventually they ran out of room and had no choice but to add it to the landfill waste. In 2017, Des Moines made a profit of $320,000 from recycling. This fiscal year, it is expected to have a $50,000 deficit. The city’s solid waste fee is increasing two percent in order to make up for these losses (Cannon 2018). Scott County, Iowa used to get 75 dollars per ton of mixed paper in 2017; a year later, they received two dollars per ton. Rock Island County brought in 50 dollars per bale of paper in 2017; in 2018, they paid five dollars to get rid of each bale (Gaul 2018).

What went wrong? The United States began recycling years ago. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the number of items recycled has increased year after year (“Municipal Solid Waste” 2016). Early on, however, the U.S. made a mistake by not building enough recycling facilities to handle everything being recycled. In order to solve this issue, the United States, along with several other countries, started sending its recyclable materials to China. China has been “the world’s recycling bin” for over 20 years, processing “at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals,” and the U.S. sent 16 million tons of waste to China in 2016 alone (Mosbergen 2018). China was happy to accept the waste in the recent past because they used the recyclables to feed the large manufacturing sector. As of the beginning of 2018, however, China no longer accepted twenty-four kinds of waste. They have also said that cardboard and scrap metal can only have 0.5 percent food contamination, which would be impossible for Americans to meet currently. The effects of this sudden change by China have been felt worldwide because countries do not have a place for this much waste. Around 38 American states, including Iowa, have seen noticeable effects (Rosengren 2019). The states most affected are on the coast, since they have always sent everything overseas and do not have domestic markets to sell their recyclables to.

This disaster is not entirely China’s fault, though. The United States has sent a high percentage of recyclables that were contaminated with food as well as non-recyclable items. In other words, the United States filled China’s landfills with trash. Americans need to be educated regarding what can and cannot be recycled. Americans try to recycle dirty food containers, batteries, coffee cups, and Christmas lights, as well as plastic bags. We need to understand that anything with food on it is considered contaminated. A peanut butter jar is not recyclable unless you wash the peanut butter out. A beer bottle must be rinsed first (Mosbergen 2018). If Americans were more educated on proper recycling, costs could be cut down for recycling companies. Fewer employee hours would be spent sorting trash from recyclables. One possible option to reduce contamination is to eliminate single stream recycling. Canmore does three-stream recycling with mixed paper, glass, plastic and metal, which results in less contamination and easier sorting. For other recyclables, there is a depot in town that accepts items such as car batteries, bike tires, electronics, light bulbs, paints, and batteries (“Beyond Curbside Recycling” 2019).

More recycling infrastructure must be built across the United States. Doing this would create new jobs, save landfill space, and, most importantly, help save our planet. This is our chance for the American recycling industry to flourish.

More recycling infrastructure must be built across the United States. Doing this would create new jobs, save landfill space, and, most importantly, help save our planet. This is our chance for the American recycling industry to flourish. The key to solving our recycling problem ultimately lies in our ability to make recycling profitable. Why cut down more trees when we have thousands of tons of paper going to landfills? Paper is not a worthless item that we should have to fight to sell to someone. Paper needs to be worth more in a recycling plant than it is in a landfill. There is proof that recycling can be profitable. As I showed above, cities across the country made hundreds of thousands of dollars on recyclables in 2017, and now they are losing thousands of dollars sending those recyclables to landfills.

Plastic is not a profitable recyclable. According to Slate Magazine, plastic bottles are worth very little when oil prices are low (Grabar 2019). Instead, we should consider eliminating single-use plastics, especially plastic water bottles. Many Americans buy plastic water bottles instead of using reusable water bottles, and much of this plastic makes its way into the oceans. In fact, over eight million pieces of plastic go into the ocean every day. It is estimated that there are over five trillion pieces of micro and macro plastic floating in the ocean (“Plastic Pollution” 2019). The problem isn’t just plastic bottles, either. Millions of people use plastic bags when they shop. In fact, two million plastic bags are used worldwide every minute and a trillion are used every year (“Plastic Bags” 2014). Why not use a reusable bag instead? Doing so could help us eliminate plastic bags. In an effort to encourage people to use reusable bags, the United Kingdom charges around six cents for each plastic bag at stores with at least 250 employees (Howell 2016). Another unnecessary plastic item is plastic straws. Every year, 100,000 sea turtles and marine mammals, in addition to 1 million seabirds, die because of plastic waste. (“Plastic Pollution” 2019). Alternatives to plastic straws include metal, silicone, paper, plant-based, and bamboo. Another plastic is the microbeads in face washes and beauty products. These small beads drain into the oceans. Why not buy environmentally-friendly products instead?

Alisabeth Gremminger, glass

Alisabeth Gremminger, glass

I am not suggesting that the United States should accept the rest of the world’s recycling, but we should be able to manage our own recycling. I hope that the United States can one day be as sustainable as Canmore, Canada. The Rocky Mountain Soap Company’s environmentally-friendly business concept can be applied here in the United States to save both money and the planet. I know that living without single-use plastics is difficult, but I am willing to take on the challenge. In fact, I have started the plastic-free month challenge. Can you reduce your waste? As Edward O. Wilson said, “the great dilemma of environmental reasoning stems from this conflict between short-term and long-term values. To select values for the near future of one’s own tribe or country is relatively easy” (40). Instead, we must think long-term about our descendants and the future of the Earth.

Works Cited

Antisdel, Brent. “Wasted.” CITYVIEW, 28 Dec. 2018,

“Banff Facts.”,

“Beyond Curbside Recycling.” Town of Canmore,

Cannon, Austin. “Paper Recycled by Des Moines Residents Was Diverted to Landfill Due to Lack of Buyers.” Des Moines Register, 17 Dec. 2018,

Chhabra, Esha. “This Canadian Company Has $11 Million In Annual Sales While Putting The Environment First.” Forbes Magazine, 23 Jan. 2017,

Gaul, Alma. “Bottom Drops out of Q-C Recycling Market.” Dispatch-Argus-QCOnline, 22 June 2018,

Grabar, Henry. “Recycling Isn’t About the Planet. It’s About Profit.” Slate Magazine, 5 Apr. 2019,

Howell, Dominic. “The 5p Plastic Bag Charge: All You Need to Know.” BBC News, 30 July 2016,

Mosbergen, Dominique. “China No Longer Wants Your Trash. Here’s Why That’s Potentially Disastrous.” The Huffington Post, 25 Jan. 2018,

“Municipal Solid Waste.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 2016,

Petrov, Svilen. “The Island of Garbage in the Pacific Is Already Bigger Than 3 Countries.” Maritime Herald, 9 Jan. 2019,

“Plastic Pollution – Facts and Figures.” Surfers Against Sewage, 2019,

Rosengren. “How Recycling Is Changing in All 50 States.” Waste Dive, 1 Feb. 2019,

“Town of Canmore Census.” Town of Canmore,

Ward, Jean Elizabeth. Li Bai: an Homage To. Lulu Books, 2007.

Wilson, Edward O. The Future of Life. Vintage Books, 2002.