Dear China,

You sure have created quite a stir. At first, I was surprised that you decided to stop taking the world’s recyclables — and I wasn’t the only one. People everywhere are struggling with your decision to pull out of the global recycling market. We had gotten used to the way things were. Then you started shutting your ports. And all of a sudden, here we are in the midst of a global recycling crisis. Things were looking dire; now I see that this might just be what the world needs.

To a great extent you created the conditions for the modern world to recognize — or remember — that materials aren’t “waste” until they’re wasted. You helped us Americans to become very diligent recyclers. For many of us in Missoula, recycling represents one small thing we can do to show we care about the Earth and our future.

Honestly, many of us didn’t know that our good intentions were paving a dangerous road. We thought we were doing our part by simply putting our paper and plastic in the right bin and keeping those materials and others — like electronics — out of the landfill. For years we didn’t know that our efforts to be good stewards came at the expense of the health of your people and your environment. Then the word started to get out and now we all know that we have been keeping our backyards clean at the expense of yours.

So in 2017 you wielded your National Sword, restricting imports of recyclables from countries all across the globe. Then earlier this year you launched Blue Sky 2018 and halted all imports of recyclables from the U.S. Amidst the chaos that has ensued, I see many opportunities.

I see an opportunity for reflection. Looking at what we do and owning the impacts of our actions is hard, especially when we tell ourselves that what we do is right. Thank you for giving me the chance to do that. For me, this has been a wake up call for my own practice of “wishful recycling,” which causes contamination and turns recyclable materials into garbage. I can and will recycle better and by doing so ensure that more of what can be recycled is recycled.

A wise person once said “recycling is a great place to start and a terrible place to stop.” Perhaps recycling will finally assume its place as the third R as we recognize that practicing the first two Rs of “reduce” and “reuse” will minimize our need to recycle at all. Ultimately, the question is this: How can we use less stuff to begin with?

I see an opportunity for systemic change. In traditional Chinese the word "crisis" is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other “a point where things happen or change.” The dangers of the situation you are addressing are clear. I hope that others see as clearly as I do that this “crisis” is a point where we can choose to change how and where we manage materials in ways that could support people and local economies everywhere, like right here in Montana.

I envision clean streams of resources feeding domestic enterprises like the paper from the CU recycling center in Boulder, Colorado, that comes back from Texas as student composition notebooks. Maybe it looks like Missoula’s glass finding its way to SLC to become fiberglass insulation. Maybe it’s adopting more systems for reuse like local kombucha brewer Back to the Mother using Bayern’s bottles or the reusable take-out ware available at the Good Food Store. Or maybe it’s adopting systems that help us use less stuff like at Zoo City Apparel’s paperless office.

Finally, I see an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and choose to do better. We are all human and humans make mistakes. Thank you for reminding us to learn from our mistakes and to choose a different way. It’s possible that plastic — the material that initially prompted this crisis — is one of those mistakes. Lead was once ubiquitous in consumer products as were asbestos and mercury. Perhaps it’s time we begin to #breakfreefromplastic.

In the short term, nations in Southeast Asia eager for economic development are quickly filling the vacuum that you, China, have left in the global recycling market and they are sending themselves down an all-too-familiar path. I fear that the outcome of simply pointing the garbage-laden cargo ships to other, less developed countries will keep many of us from gleaning the true value of this opportunity, which is the chance to rethink the systems that we support and that support us and to reorient them toward systems that value people and communities as well as materials.

Thank you, China. Closing your ports may just have opened the door to a better world for all of us.

Jeremy Drake is the Community Engagement Manager at Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

May 12: 2018 Youth Conservation & Education Expo from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Teller Wildlife Refuge in Corvallis, MT.

May 14: Going Fossil Free in Montana: What Does That Mean? at 5:30 p.m. Silver Park picnic area

May 18: Endangered Species Day Film Festival from 6-9 p.m. hosted by Endangered Species Coalition & International Wildlife Film Festival at The Roxy Theater

June 7: Climate Smart Missoula’s Monthly Meetup on the topic of the nexus of Health and Climate, 5 p.m. at Imagine Nation Brewing Co.