U.S. Recycling Industry Responds to China’s Crackdown on Imported Trash

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Posted on January 25, 2018

While most of us try to do our part by recycling regularly, we don’t always give much thought to what happens to our material once it has been collected. Uncomfortable as it may be to admit, far too many of us tend to fall back on the old adage out of sight out of mind.   What happens to our material once it is out of sight should concern anyone who truly wants make an impact on the excessive use of virgin, natural resources and the huge amount of waste generated in this country each year.  While Americans represent only 4% of the global population, we produce 30% of the world’s waste, and current recycling methods in this country are making only a small dent in the waste stream due to inefficiencies in collection and public misperceptions.

In truth, recycling entails much more than the recovery of recyclable materials; curbside collection and drop-off programs are only the beginning of a larger system which make up a “recycling loop”   that supports an entire economic system.  That system begins with a consumer purchase and is completed when and if that item is re-manufactured and returned to the shelf for reuse or repurchase. *

High Contamination Rates Associated with Single-Stream Recycling Negatively Affect the Loop

Over the past several years the fledgling U.S. recycling system has begun to experience difficulties, largely due to the promotion and increased popularity of single-stream recycling, a system which encourages “co-mingling” of products without pre-sorting by participants. The promise of increased public participation and material recovery rates has enticed a rising number of municipalities to implement single-stream programs.   However, the bulk of these programs have failed to educate the public as to what is and what is not actually recyclable and have also failed to help participants assume any personal responsibility for their purchasing choices and waste disposal habits.  Couple the lack of an educated participant pool with the larger bin sizes provided by most programs, which by themselves encourage larger consumption and waste, and the result has been an increase in contamination and wastage rates within such programs.  While making it easier for well-meaning recyclers to contribute to an onslaught of contaminated and unrecyclable product, the push for single stream has led to a cumulative and extremely negative impact on the recycling industry as a whole.

It’s Easier to Make a Mess than it is to Clean It Up

The problem with dealing with a contaminated recycling stream can best be explained through example. For instance, the process of making new paper products from pure, unspoiled paper or new steels cans from re-melted steel seems pretty straight forward; with a few more details added, it is not so difficult to envision the industry’s problem:  Paper products mixed with plastic sacks, waxy cartons and greasy food packaging, or stuck together with liquid laundry detergents and sour milk become non-recyclable garbage. Broken glass shards floating in a vat of molten steel or mixed with other recyclables renders both the otherwise recyclable glass and the products with which the shards are mixed useless to re-manufactures who wish to produce quality products.

While the majority of household plastic containers are, technically, recyclable, stable domestic markets exist for only certain types of plastics, specifically solid plastic containers marked #2 or #5, and those marked #1 if they are a bottle, jar, or jug.  U.S. companies have had little financial incentive to invest in the advancement of domestic recycling technology for processing plastics such as “blister” and those marked #3 – # 7.   Consequently, markets for these types of plastics remain virtually nonexistent in the United States.  By including these products in collection, programs add to the misperception by the public that they need not be mindful of their purchasing habits and that all of their plastics will be recycled.  In reality, collection simply insures that far more waste will be generated.

Separating out the contamination, the non-recyclable and/or ruined product from that which can be marketed and used requires a total revamp of processing systems, a huge investment in automated machinery or, at the very least, the temporary, but repeated, shutdown of processing lines.  Such options often inflict an unmanageable logistical, manpower and/or economic burden on the re-manufacturing industry and, as a result, in recent years both foreign and domestic mills have implemented stricter material specifications, reduced the price they are willing to pay for even top-quality feedstock, or have begun turning back deliveries of contaminated product.  Others have stopped using recycled materials altogether.  Unable to competitively market their contaminated and mixed materials to unwilling domestic mills here in the United States, single stream programs began shipping their loads to developing countries in Asia, countries that typically have few environmental regulations, employee safe guards or child labor laws: Countries like China.   In fact, recycled scrap is among America’s top six exports, creating a billion dollar a year export industry in plastics alone, nearly half of which heads for China.

China-A Convenient and Cheap Dumping Ground

China ships a multitude of low-cost consumer products to the US.  Just like American trucking companies which deliver products across the United States, Chinese shipping companies don’t want to make the return trip empty and therefore have offered low shipping rates for the return trip to China.  This has allowed exporters of recycled scrap to fill those empty, China bound shipping containers for pennies on the dollar.  The low costs associated with exporting low quality recycling materials have far outweighed the need to educate customers, modify program guidelines or invest in technologies which could clean up the material streams here in the US.  Consequently, there are not enough domestic recycling mills here in America to deal with the ever-increasing quantity of low-quality scrap being collected for recycling, and an uninformed public is contributing more waste to the problem.

China’s National Sword Campaign Sends Global Markets Reeling

After decades of receiving shipments of low quality and contaminated recyclable materials from the West, China has had enough.  Citing both environmental and human health concerns, China has been cracking down on recycled imports such as mixed paper, scrap plastics, and electronics waste. The crackdown began in 2013, with the implementation of Operation Green Fence. The campaign aimed to heighten enforcement of China’s existing rules and quality specifications on recycled scrap imports, with the hopes that non-compliant exporters would begin to meet their requirements. This apparently was not the case, as earlier this year Chinese officials doubled down on their demands by announcing the beginning of the National Sword campaign. The new campaign aims to enforce even stricter rules, regulations, and inspections at its ports. Port authorities have begun denying entry to shipments which contain hazardous materials or unacceptable levels of non-recyclables, i.e. garbage.  Then, on July 18, 2017, the Ministry of Environmental Protection of the People’s Republic of China, issued an import ban on 24 separate types of solid waste (recycled scrap) with the World Trade Organization (WTO).  Since China has been the leading importer of solid waste for decades, encompassing 70% of the global market, news of the ban sent shock waves through recycling industries worldwide and left exporters of recycled waste in the U.S. and across Europe scrambling to secure alternative markets.

New Developments Felt Here in the US and Around the World

These new developments have caused massive disruptions through a vast array of supply chains which stretch from waste and recycling companies across the US and Europe to factory floors in Hong Kong and Beijing. In turn, values for recycled scrap have dropped significantly over the past few months which is affecting commodity markets, transportation systems and collectors here in the United States.

While scrap dealers search for new buyers across Asia, domestic mills are either inundated with an overabundance of feedstock or refusing to accept the low-quality contaminated materials collected by single-stream programs. As a result, hundreds of recycling programs are now revising or limiting the items accepted by their programs. Some collection facilities are choosing to stockpile materials in the hopes that new markets will be found. Others have begun, or are considering, landfilling recyclables for which they can no longer secure end markets.   Still others are looking at restructuring their programs based on a multi-stream model.

Recycling Responsibly Keeps Our Local Program Strong

GJ CRI long ago made a commitment to collect and process clean materials and to provide domestic mills with high- quality feedstock.   To accomplish this, a multi-stream recycling system, in which certain types of materials-like glass, plastic, paper and cardboard-are handled as separate commodities, has been at the heart of the program.  This type of recycling system has proven to be a much more successful approach to maintaining the “recycling loop.” By educating customers about what can and cannot be recycled, and then requiring some initial sorting on their part, multi-stream programs like GJ CRI’s have largely eliminated contamination.  The end result is clean materials which are sought after by domestic mills here in the U.S., allowing us to support American workers and ensure the most environmentally friendly and ethical end use of the materials we collect.  Accomplishing this end has meant that we have had to maintain a higher standard and limit the types of materials accepted by our program to those for which there are strong US markets. This has also meant educating our program participants and enlisting their cooperation in sorting their material into a truly recyclable form. This has required a bit more effort on our part and on the part of local residents.  However, that extra effort has been worthwhile. Grand Junction has some of the most informed and dedicated recyclers in America! As a result, our program remains successful. While we will inevitably feel the pinch of lower commodity prices, our program is rarely affected by market losses and will not be impacted by the current disappearance of foreign markets.

In the trying time ahead, it is our hope that manufactures, regulators, and waste and recycling companies will work together to educate the public on the true state of recycling and fill the gaps in America’s recycling infrastructure.

Until then, there are a few simple things you can do to help support the US recycling industry in the important days, months and years ahead.

Remember these important tips:

  • Limit the items in your plastics bin to solid plastic containers marked #1, #2 or #5.  Remember no plastic clamshells or blister of any kind. **   
  • Avoid putting greasy food containers, paper towels, plastic bags, disposable coffee cups, and waxy cartons in your paper recycling.
  • Last but not least, “When in doubt, toss it out.” If you aren’t sure that an item can be recycled, either phone us or put it in the trash.

We want to thank you for taking the time to Recycle Responsibly!

 * For more information about the recycling loop http://gjcri.com/what-is-the-recycling-loop/

**For more information about blister http://gjcri.com/blister-cant-recycle/

The following links will help you learn more about how China’s import ban is impacting the US recycling industry.

We Recycle So Much Trash, it’s Created an International Crisis https://grist.org/article/we-recycle-so-much-trash-its-created-an-international-crisis/

Some recycling companies are considering seeking permission to landfill recyclables while they search for new buyers. http://www.opb.org/news/article/chinese-ban-waste-northwest-recycling-limbo/

http://www.hoodrivernews.com/news/2017/oct/11/local-recycling-program-feels-global-impacts/

Plastics industry feeling the effects of China’s ban https://resource-recycling.com/plastics/2017/10/03/mixed-rigids-feel-effects-chinas-ban/

The recent ban may be incentive for US companies to get innovative https://www.greenbiz.com/article/us-companies-deconstruct-chinas-recycling-import-ban

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2017/11/16/china-will-no-longer-take-our-recycled-junk/#6a565f4a2122