Picking Up The Pieces: US Recyclers React to China’s Bans

By Liz Skolnick

This piece is a follow-up to our article “Understanding China’s Recyclables Bans” from March, 2018.

It’s been over four months since China’s latest update to its recyclable materials bans, which began in 2013. And we at the Long Island Recycling Initiative have been keeping an eye on how things have played out domestically. This past year has seen many articles detailing US recyclers’ woes and the stockpiling of materials at processing centers. While profits took a nosedive and space ran out, recyclers waited to see what new pathways would open up. So what has happened since? And are things as grim as where we left off? Below, we take stock of some changes on the horizon and a few already underway in the arena of domestic recycling.

From the Curb to the Landfill, Costs Soar

As predicted, one of the first changes associated with China’s bans has been an increase in landfill tip fees (WasteDive puts the average domestic increase at 3.5%) and tipping fees at recycling plants, driven by the plummeting value of recyclable materials. In turn, trash haulers that used to pay communities for their recyclables, are now charging to haul them away, in the most dire cases leading communities to stop recycling altogether. These cases are in the minority, and a lot of states have laws which prevent items from going to landfill. Still, in some places the laws themselves are being tested as solid waste authorities have been forced to relax regulations, allowing items to be temporarily landfilled while the market stabilizes.

In most cases though, communities have agreed to shoulder the extra carter costs, and there is a general sense that residents want to continue recycling. Of course, tough decisions are being made in lots of communities around the country, and the higher the costs, the more of a strain on the municipal till. For an in-depth look at how this is playing out, see WasteDive’s excellent state-by-state breakdown of the effects of China’s bans.

Switching Back to Dual Stream

Collection and sorting practices have come under review in some communities, and proposed changes seek to address problems that spurred China’s bans in the first place. One such problem (arguably the problem) is the dirtiness of materials. Single-stream recycling at first glance produced higher recycling rates — simply more tons of stuff collected. However, mixing together all different kinds of materials created lots of contamination, and more non-recyclable items ended up in the bin. This dirty and unusable material then had to be sorted and thrown out when it got to China, leading to pollution, health problems and profit loss.

Several communities, from Canada to California, have realized that dual-stream recycling, which keeps materials separate (paper and cardboard from glass/metal/plastic) produces cleaner materials, which command a higher price. In short, switching back to dual-stream, could actually save money in the end, and some areas have begun to take such action.

Domestic Recycling Gains Appeal

Another result of China’s bans has been investment in domestic mills to process recyclables. Though Southeast Asian countries have stepped up to fill some of the void left by Chinese processors, they cannot handle the sheer volume that we’ve been sending China for years. Some cities see a silver lining in the market upheaval and are working to develop their own municipal facilities as a source of revenue. The city of Phoenix, AZ is reviewing proposals for a mixed plastics remanufacturing mill (plastics #3 to #7 have become particularly difficult to recycle since China banned them last year, with much of them heading to landfills and incinerators). And long-standing domestic operations such as Pratt Industries in Georgia are benefiting from the bans, as items which would have been bound for China now stream through their gates.

Interestingly, some Chinese recyclers in need of clean material are now looking to shift the sorting here; several significant proposals from Chinese companies have cropped up since the beginning of the year. Proposed facilities include a plastics processor in Alabama, and a food and beverage carton recycler in South Carolina.

“There’s No Away in Throw Away

To be sure, China’s bans of many common recyclables has sent the global materials market into a tailspin, with exporters in the US and abroad panicking as we find new ways to give valuable items a “second life.” But the fact is, China’s decision stems from a growing understanding of the toll all this recycling has taken on their country’s environment. Recycling can be a messy business when the materials are not clean and proper environmental and health regulations are not in place. There are, however, cleaner and more environmentally responsible ways to do it, and it’s precisely this kind of innovation that we hope to see in the wake of the bans. We have already seen early reactions in the forms of investment in domestic facilities, and a switch to more source-separation. Materials processors themselves have been candid both about their current struggles and their - sometimes surprising - optimism that this turmoil will herald in an age of greater awareness and responsibility in how we create, use and process everyday materials.

Will we start swapping out those plastic forks for a travel lunch kit? Or even separating recycling into more categories? Whatever happens, China has sent a message loud and clear that we need to start thinking beyond the bin.  And now when we throw things “away,” we might find that they land a little closer to home.