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How did the American Recycling Crisis Happen?

How did the American Recycling Crisis Happen?

When you put your recycling out for your city to pick it up, you expect your work to be done. You wave bye-bye as the trucks pick up the bins, empty their contents into a truck and drive away.

But the story of recycling doesn’t stop there. When you recycle, you hand over a huge responsibility.

City recyclers juggle a lot of challenges including high quantities of material, high costs to recycle, contamination and a need to satisfy the perception of sustainability.

Until recently, a lot of these problems went under the radar. For instance, we assume our recyclable plastic gets transformed into new products, when in reality, onlynine percent of all plastics has ever been recycled.

What happens to the rest? It might get incinerated or it might stay in landfills or fill up waterways.

American recycling is global in scale, spanning multiple continents. This makes it understandable that we'd have blindspots about it.

Developing countries with lower health and environmental standards typically process our recycling. Increasingly, these “markets” are rejecting our materials, which means American recycling could undergo a total transformation.


How does American recycling work?

The technical term for the garbage we discard for trash, compost or recycling is called “municipal solid waste” (MSW). The U.S. generates more MSW than any other country in the world.

It created258 million tons of solid waste in 2014. About half of that goes to landfills, a quarter to recycling centers and the remainder goes to waste to energy plants and composters.

Most recycling programs have “single stream” systems, meaning customers put all of their recyclable materials into one bin. The recycling centers use machines or manual labor to sort the contents. Eighty percent of recycling programs used this format by 2014.

However, this means any contaminating oil lingering in a bottle can easily migrate and spoil the entire contents of a recycling bin. Recyclers can't necessarily divert our recycling from the landfill stream if it's contaminated.

Where does recycling go after it gets picked up?

Our recycling first goes to sorting facilities, where workers aim to sort the good, recyclable material from the bad, contaminated material, which cannot be recycled.

The high-quality material is packed in large units called bales that can be sold to brokers. The brokers then sell these bales to the reclaimers who actually process the material into a form that can be used in manufacturing.

Composed plastic stacks

Thisrecycling process takes place on the international stage. About half of U.S. plastic and cardboard gets shipped overseas. Until recently, China accepted most of the recyclable material from the U.S., but now recyclers seek new markets.  

In the past, China’s standards for sorting and contamination for plastic remained low. American recyclers sorted plastic into mixed bales, which they sent to China. Then Chinese workers sorted the material in these bales more carefully.

This remained cost-effective thanks to cheap labor. At that time, even if the material wasn’t really recyclable, China wouldn’t send it back. The recycling processors would just incinerate the plastic or consider it garbage.

China could only recycle abouta quarter of the plastic material in mixed bales. Much of our so-called recycling didn’t really get recycled.

The recycling trade with China also depended on several other convenient factors. For instance, American recycling shipments to China had originally been sent by China full of consumer products to the U.S. Recycling got carried back on the return trip. This made the shipments affordable for American recyclers.

As the manufacturing hub of the world, China also has a market and demand for scrap material.  

China has recently shifted its policies, however. It no longer shoulders the negative environmental impacts of the un-recyclable plastic waste produced by other countries.

China’s “recycling ban”

At the start of 2018, China limited its imports of recyclable materials under its “National Sword” policy. China banned40 types of solid waste scrap that it previously accepted. Examples include plastic numbers 3 through 7, motors and wires.

China also raised standards on many other types of recyclable materials. For instance, aplastic bale can contain only 0.5 percent of contaminated (non-recyclable) plastic.

These standards are nearly impossible to meet with the sorting capabilities of most U.S. municipalities. That’s why the amount of plastic shipped to China dropped by95 percent. Meanwhile, shipments ofmixed paper dropped by a third. Aluminum and glass didn’t show significant decreases, though.

Before the ban, China obviously had to absorb much of the contaminated materials that couldn’t get properly recycled. This created a waste crisis that stemmed from the imports, not from its own population.

That’s why China hasshifted its policy to use its recycling centers to process its domestic recycling and improve its overall environmental image.

Because of China’s restrictions on contaminated plastic, most imports have been turned away in recent years.

According toFinancial Times, “China and Hong Kong went from buying 60 percent of the plastic waste exported by G7 countries during the first half of 2017, to taking less than 10 per cent during the same period a year later.”

U.S. recyclers would also earn money on mixed scrap bales in the past, whereas now they pay to send them away.

American recycling problems and solutions

U.S. recycling centers have responded by turning to other international markets, in search of alternative buyers specifically for their recyclable plastic.

The Guardian questioned this practice, since many of these countries (such as Turkey, Senegal and the Philippines) don’t have a strong infrastructure for handling plastic. This leads to negative health impacts for recycling industry workers and environmental impacts for communities.  

Some countries are following China’s footsteps by heightening their own restrictions on plastic scrap. Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and India nolonger accept plastic scrap. This has led to a rise in the number of illegal recycling processors accepting recyclable materials.

Many American recyclers have resorted toalternatives that don’t involve recycling at all. Here are some examples:

  • Memphis, Tennessee has started considering “low market value” recyclables trash.
  • Douglas County, Oregon, Hancock, Maine, Marysville, Michigan and Deltona, Florida have scaled back or canceled their recycling programs to cut costs.  
  • Indianapolis, Indiana adjusted its policies by charging households high prices for recycling.
  • Flagstaff, Arizona now refuses as many as seven types of commonly contaminated plastics. (Compiled fromWired, Business Insider andCity Lab)

Areas taking a more proactive approach include Birmingham, Alabama and California. They both want to improve education and cut down on contamination to improve the quality of the material in their bales. Some communities, like Brookhaven, Long Island, are alsoeliminating single-stream recycling collection methods.

Increasing recycling capacity in the U.S. is another option. This has led some Chinese investors to purchase machines to setup recycling plants and paper mills in the U.S. That way, the recycling can occur where the raw waste material is most abundant.

What can you recycle?

Recycling is a tricky endeavor. For instance, pizza boxes covered in grease and wet plastic containers can’t be recycled. They’re considered contaminated materials. Single stream recycling programs make contamination more likely.

For instance, cardboard can’t have punctures or plastic tape pieces on it, or if it’s stuffed into a bin with glass shards, the risk of contamination goes up. Or, if cooking oil from just one bottle leaks onto the other materials in a bin, none of the materials can be recycled.

According to David Biderman, CEO and executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Americans are “aspirational recyclers.” We hope that when we put something in the recycling bin, it might get recycled, even if it’s not on the accepted items list.

Unfortunately, this wishful thinking doesn’t make things easy for recyclers who sort the material. We should focus on becoming “smart” recyclers who know which materials are accepted.

When is recycling worth it?

In order to be successful, recycling should generate income. The profit potential of recycling depends on commodity prices that fluctuate, leaving the entire industry open to risk if the markets shift.

The impact of China stepping down from the recycling market meant that commodities prices for recycling went haywire. A lack of demand caused prices on the materials to drop so much that recyclers had to pay to recycle their bales. While this is an extreme case, market fluctuations happen all of the time.

In contrast, PET plastic prices hit a high in the market in 2011. This is the plastic we use to make soda and water bottles. Anumber of factors influenced this bump in price: the high price of oil and a flood that wiped out cotton in Pakistan that year. Manufacturers used synthetic textiles made from plastic to replace the missing cotton. That year, recyclable PET was in demand.

Additional influential factors on recyclable commodities returns include the location of facilities for processing, environmental laws, landfill prices and the prices of raw materials. In 2016, lowprices on crude oil, paper and metals sent the prices of recyclable materials into a tailspin.

With the current unattractive market situation for recyclers, operation costs are up. This means recycling programs have to find the money elsewhere.

Yet, even as recycling dynamics shift, support for the concept of diverting material from the waste stream remains high and the “circular economy” idea is trending. When approached wisely, recycling can even become a selling point for customers and communities. Let’s look at a few examples.

Innovative recycling companies

Finding a profitable business model is one of the underlying dilemmas of recycling. If we don’t find value in recycled materials, recycling programs are bound to fail. Some companies, however, have innovated to create new recycling markets.

Terracycle shifted built a profitable business model out of recycling by focusing ondirect business relationships with partners. This way, they can design targeted recycling innovations for specific materials, mostly plastics. However, even they understand thatrecycling doesn’t solve the real issues behind our waste crisis: overconsumption and disposable materials. To address this, they specificallypartnered with UPS to create Loop, a reusable packaging design, delivery and pick-up solution for a list of popular consumer goods. The concept eliminates the need to recycle bottles and cans.

Another approach is to make the story of a recycled material resonate with customers. That’s whyfashion products made from ocean plastic are trending.

This recycling narrative taps into our desire to save whales, dolphins and beautiful albatross that wash up on beaches with plastic-filled stomachs.

Companies as diverse as Stella McCartney, Gucci, Prada, Adidas and Girlfriend Collective are all selling fashion items made from ocean plastic. The success or failure of ocean plastic fashion will reveal whether the sustainable stories can motivate buyers and create markets for recycled materials.

Zero waste initiatives

In spite of the shift for the international recycling trade, many U.S. municipalities still want to greatly reduce the amount of waste they send to landfills.

For instance, New York City, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Monica all have ambitious goals of generating zero waste in the coming decades through initiatives designed to divert, compost and recycle solid waste.

This push towards waste reduction reflects a growing public concern about our consumption habits.

How you can recycle better

Even though recycling faces numerous challenges, the underlying concept still remains the same. Mining the waste stream for material provides an alternative to extracting raw material, which has more negative impacts on the natural environment.

It’s still a noble idea, but we have to understand that our “aspirational recycling” doesn’t work.

Learning the correct facts about what products our municipalities accept and what standards of cleanliness they require is the first step to take at home.

How you can recycle better

Another key takeaway from the recycling crisis is that we simply generate too much waste.

It’s time to step up to the challenge to cut back on our waste consumption. The best ways to do so are to consciously reduce single-use plastic waste by reusing containers, purchasing from companies that focus on sustainability and even writing to manufacturers to complain when their products have excess packaging.

It’s time for us to demand change.


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