Once upon a time, American cities could easily sell the recycling they collected to China. Not anymore. China stopped accepting 24 kinds of materials in January 2018 and then added 32 categories to that list in April.
The loss of such a major market has caused a crisis in American recycling.
It’s worth noting, though, that the American recycling industry has always experienced rising and falling prices. It has survived similar crises before, and it will survive this one.
Let’s take a look at how the problem developed, how the industry is responding, and what the general public ought to do about it.
How China changed its policy on imported recyclables
In the 1990s, China aggressively sought imported paper, plastic, and metals so it could become a world leader in manufacturing recycled products.
At about the same time, American municipalities began to expand the kinds of items they accepted for recycling.
Remember when all plastic had to have either a 1 or 2 in the little recycling triangle or you had to put it in the trash? I even remember when magazines, with their glossy paper, could not be recycled. China’s growing appetite for recycled goods may have contributed to that expansion.
Trash haulers collect recyclables and take them to a material recovery facility (MRF). Then, the MRF sorts and bales everything and sells it. Not all MRFs do a good job of sorting. A bale of newsprint should have only newsprint. Anything else—bits of plastic, foil, or other kinds of paper—contaminates the bale. And the newsprint must be clean. It is contaminated if it has any kind of food waste on it.
MRFs have struggled to limit contamination of their output to 5%. In some American cities, the finished bales have routinely included 10%, or even as high as 25% contamination. How long would you continue to buy such a defective product?
China began to warn the US about the low quality of its exported recyclables in 2009. It began to restrict what it would accept in 2013. The latest crackdown occurred because the US didn’t take China’s concerns seriously enough. The quality of our exports has not improved in all that time.
So we can hardly blame China for deciding it no longer wants to import garbage that it must send to its own landfill. Last August, China declared that, starting in January 2018, it would not accept more than 0.3% contamination.
The immediate impact of China’s new policy
In 2015, China imported almost 60% of the entire world’s plastic scrap and more than half of the paper scrap. In January 2017 alone, it accepted more than 208,000 metric tons of mixed paper from the US and almost 75,000 metric tons of mixed plastic.
But in January 2018, it accepted only 11,000 metric tons of our paper and 5,000 metric tons of our plastic. Clearly, some American MRFs can already meet the new Chinese standards.
Not only does China not want contaminated bales, it doesn’t want any material that must undergo more recycling. Making something of recycled plastic, for example, requires pellets of uniform color, size, and shape.
It seems that American companies ought to be able to take sorted bales from MRFs and make the pellets. Other American companies ought to be able to use those pellets for new products, but China would willingly buy them, too.
But the earlier Chinese policy of buying as much scrap as it could get its hands on caused different problems for Americans. American companies who wanted to make recycled products had to compete with China for the raw materials. Many simply decided not to include recycling in their business plans.
Now, I hope, American companies will get more serious about making recycled products. But it will take several years before they can absorb as much as China used to buy.
So American MRFs must now scramble to find new buyers to replace the Chinese. We imported so much from China that sending recyclables back in the emptied shipping containers helped everyone. Other countries, such as Vietnam or India, still welcome our recyclables. But shipping there costs more.
Some recycling solutions
For now, then, our MRFs can’t get the prices they formerly got. Shipping their output has gotten more expensive. Some towns have abandoned recycling. Others have severely limited what they will accept. Both reactions result in more material going to landfills. And yet, ton for ton, recycling can still be more economical than burying or burning our waste.
San Francisco’s recycling practices
San Francisco has become a model for how recycling can work. It claims to divert 80% of its waste stream from its landfill and hopes to achieve zero waste to landfill by 2020.
In contrast, Americans nationwide only recycle about 34% of the waste stream. New York has about a 21% recycling rate, Chicago only about 10%.
For almost ten years, San Francisco has made not only recycling but composting mandatory. Households and businesses must pay higher rates for trash collection than for recycling and compost collection. Not only that, the city provides a 64-gallon recycling container (blue), a 32-gallon composting container (green), but only a 16-gallon trash container (black).
The city outright bans plastic checkout bags and Styrofoam. It mandates charging a fee for other single-use products.
Unlike New York, with its hundreds of competing trash-collecting companies, San Francisco works with only a single waste management contractor, Recology. Recology’s high-tech MRF sorts 40-45 tons every hour. It even accepts plastic films that wreak havoc at most MRFs. It sells its output both in this country and abroad.
The Chinese crackdown has created some problems in San Francisco, but no crisis. Recology claims a reputation for exceptionally clean bales. Its drivers look out for improperly sorted materials at curbside and leave reminders when they notice problems. The company also looks for ways to improve its educational and outreach activities.
A single site also processes all of San Francisco’s yard waste and food scraps. It then sells the finished compost to California’s vineyards and nut growers.
How other cities can change their recycling
Our recycling industry needs to do whatever is necessary to cut contamination rates in order to provide a higher quality product.
Cities can focus on composting soiled paper and food debris, along with yard waste. It counts for more than 30% of household waste. Plenty of local gardeners would be happy to purchase the compost.
When I first heard the idea of collecting food waste, I was skeptical. It would require a third set of containers and collection trucks. Requiring more sorting would likely reduce participation rates. But San Francisco has made recycling and composting mandatory and achieved unparalleled diversion of waste from landfills.
Consumers ought to be more diligent about “reduce” and “reuse” to keep the volume of recycling as low as possible. They also ought to know what their municipality accepts and doesn’t accept. If something is not on the local list, don’t put it in the recycling container. Check Earth911 for alternative ways to recycle it.
Unfortunately, not everyone cares about recycling or even sorting trash properly—even to save money. So cities need to find ways to identify the specific households that put the wrong things out for recycling.
They can also make it easier for everyone. It doesn’t help that communities differ in detail about what they do or do not accept. What some people’s home town accepts for recycling may not be accepted in the town where they work. Blue seems to be the most common color for recycling containers. But where I live, the recycling containers are brown and the trash containers green!
It’s time for municipalities to agree on a single standard. The same things should be recyclable or not everywhere in the country. And, what’s more, put in the same colored bins.
New business models for recycling
We need more local companies that make products from recycled wastes. Why export anything to China if someone can use it here?
For example, the MRF in Bowling Green, Ohio needs only send its PET bottles, the kind with no. 1 in the triangle, across the street. That’s where a company makes pellets from them; pellets form the raw material for new products.
At least some of those pellets go only across town, where another company makes them into new bottles. Bowling Green only lacks a soda bottling plant to prevent recycling empty bottles from becoming a closed loop there.
One huge recycling headache, glass, has nothing to do with China. Not many companies reprocess it. There ought to be more. But glass is very heavy, which makes it expensive to ship long distances. It seems unrealistic to expect that enough glass reprocessing companies can start up that all cities can be within a reasonable distance of one.
But glass makes an excellent aggregate for some applications of concrete and asphalt. Some manufacturing processes can use crushed glass as an abrasive material. How can we use that glass locally?
In summary, the Chinese crackdown on recycling will transform the American recycling industry. It will not kill it. The transformation will take a few years, but it requires mostly imagination and will. We have no shortage of that.
China tightens recycling import rules / Recology. Link no longer works, 4/20/19
Cities scramble to rewrite rules on recycling after China stops taking ‘foreign garbage’ / David Goldstein, McClatchy DC Bureau. July 1, 2018
How San Francisco sends less trash to the landfill than any other major U.S. city / Katie Brigham, CNBC. July 14, 2018
NRC calls for U.S. recycling improvements amid China crackdown / Mallory Szczepanski, Waste 360. May 18, 2018
Recycling is crashing? Far from it / Neil Seidman, Governing. August 20, 2018
Trash and recycling truck. Some rights reserved by fairfaxcounty
Port of Shanghai. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Bales of plastic. Some rights reserved by Nick Saltmarsh.
San Francisco waste containers. Recology.
Bowling Green, Ohio MRF. My photos.