For decades, Americans have happily taken part in the worldwide effort to reduce waste through recycling in order to help preserve the environment.
But now the recycling industry nationwide is struggling, in large part due to China and other Asian nations, which have set stringent guidelines for accepting used paper and plastic from markets and municipalities in the United States.
These new rules have forced towns and cities across the country to either shutter recycling programs or place limits on the types of materials they receive. In many cases, the programs that have survived now face steep price increases.
“We are no longer receiving revenue,” said Pasadena’s Environmental Program Manager Gabriel Silva, who is in charge of the city’s recycling program. “We had a contract in place with a vendor, but the market has changed, and we have had to make adjustments. So, as of Jan. 1, we have to start paying for recycling,” Silva said.
Although Pasadena has in recent years banned the use of plastic bags, Styrofoam and most recently plastic straws, the city still collects 7,000 tons of ostensibly recyclable material a year through the city’s curbside recycling program.
Unlike Pasadena, however, many communities around the country do not have the resources to pay for such services, and are forced to either landfill of burn the excess items like so much ordinary refuse.
“We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now,” California Treasurer Fiona Ma, told The New York Times.
The Dirty Half-Dozen
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the United States generates more than 250 million tons of waste a year, about a third of which is recycled.
“People really bought into the idea that we should recycle,” Sara Bixby executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, told the Pasadena Weekly. “But they became overcommitted in some ways. We have relied on China for our basic recycling markets. They were very interested and we were very happy to send materials to them.” But, Bixby said, “Some of the education slipped and the contamination started to grow.”
Up until January 2018, China was one of the world’s largest buyers of recycled material collected on a daily basis in communities throughout the United States, purchasing more than 40 percent of the nation’s used paper and plastic.
But officials in China became disgruntled after they determined that too much actual trash was being mixed in with the cardboard and plastics that can be repurposed.
Last year, China stopped accepting two-dozen different types of recyclable materials unless the sellers met strict guidelines, which demands imported recycling loads be up to 99.5 percent “clean” and unmixed with plastic things that may seem recyclable, but are not.
The six top items that typically get tossed in the recycling bin but really belong in the trash, according to The New York Times, are: dirty diapers, believe it or not; plastic bags, which plug up recycling machinery; disposable cups, which are coated in plastic that must be removed before reprocessing; plastic food cups, which if included with other recyclables likely “contaminates the rest of the materials,” Jim Ace of Stand.earth told The NY Times; oily pizza boxes, among the most common offenders when it comes to contamination, The Times reported; yogurt cups, as well as uncleaned margarine and butter tubs; and oily takeout containers, which need to be cleaned before they can be accepted.
In Pasadena, officials over the past few years have been trying to reduce the city’s waste imprint in nearby Scholl Canyon Landfill, just west of town. To that end, in 2012 the city banned plastic bags, which applies to supermarkets, drug stores, liquor markets and convenience stores. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based nonprofit, it takes 500 years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill.
In 2013, the city placed a moratorium on recycling centers, largely due to citizen complaints, but the temporary ban was lifted in 2015. The following year, the City Council voted to ban polystyrene (Styrofoam) food packaging. And last year, the council approved a ban on plastic straws, which went into effect on Jan. 1.
The new policy in China, by far the largest recycling processor in Asia, has become known as National Sword.
“This is a moment of truth for the recycling industry,” Don Slager, chief executive of Republic Services, the second-largest waste-management company in the US, told Financial Times. Global recycling last year generated $200 billion in revenue. Slager estimates his group alone will lose out on $150 million revenue this year due to China’s National Sword policy.
Over the coming decade, 111 million tons of plastics will have to find a new place to be processed or otherwise disposed of as a result of China’s ban, according to University of Georgia engineering professor Jenna Jambeck. However, the places trying to take up some of the slack in 2018 were mostly lower-income countries, primarily in Southeast Asia, which lack the infrastructure to properly handle recyclables. Those countries were quickly overwhelmed by the volume and also forced to cut back on imports.
Thailand and India, which have started accepting more imported recyclables, have also imposed new restrictions on plastic waste.
Paying the Price
The turmoil in the global recycling markets has already impacted American communities.
With fewer buyers, recycling companies have begun making up the difference by charging cities more money, some up to four times more than what they were charged last year.
“Recycling is a resource that we are always going to need,” Silva said. “It’s a more efficient use of material than mining raw material. We don’t want it to go away. The recycling market is changing, but other markets will open up.”
Right now, however, the results of China’s National Sword policy have been catastrophic to American recycling programs.
Waste-management officials in California are discussing building plants to use recycled materials, educating consumers to use fewer disposable products and putting pressure on manufacturers to share the financial responsibility for the cost of the waste that their products eventually become.
East Coast cities are dealing with similar problems in different ways. Philadelphia, for instance, is burning about half of its recycling material to convert the waste to energy.
In February, officials in Deltona, Florida suspended the city’s curbside recycling program due to expense. Meanwhile, in Memphis the international airport there still has recycling bins around the terminals, but the recyclables are sent to a landfill.
Some worry that burning plastic items will only worsen the environment. In Chester, a city near Philadelphia, nearly four in 10 children have asthma, and the rate of ovarian cancer is 64 percent higher than the rest of Pennsylvania. Lung cancer rates are 24 percent higher, according to state health statistics.
“Recycling has been dysfunctional for a long time,” said Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America, a nonprofit organization that pushes for more standardized labels on recycling bins to help people better sort material. “But not many people really noticed when China was our dumping ground.”
‘Bump’ vs ‘Sea Change’
In 1970, with the first celebration of Earth Day, 3,000 drop-off centers opened nationwide. By the end of that decade, many of those centers were replaced by government-run curbside recycling programs, which for years made money for its managers.
Unfortunately, as people started recycling, they also got in the habit of placing wrong and often contaminated items in recycling bins, leading to the mess the industry currently faces.
“We have been recycling for 30-plus years,” said Bixby. “This is a disruption. It’s making us recycle clean materials and recycle correctly. It is not an Armageddon or an apocalypse. It’s a bump in the road.”
Dan Hardgrove, assistant director of public works in Glendale, disputes that description, saying what’s happening now is more like “a sea change.”
“We have done a lot of outreach to the public. All of our commodities are taken to a recycling center and they separate out contaminates. It’s just not moving as quickly as it used to. This is a sea change for recycling. It’s a matter of how we adjust to it,” Hardgrove said.
“As an industry, we need to look at other markets,” he said. “It’s fair to say we have stayed on par with the things happening in China.”