We are all aware of the Great Wall of China in terms of its historical significance and its significant size. Rightfully so, the Chinese people are very proud of this structure. Despite its magnificence it has absolutely no impact on those of us who reside in other countries, such as the United States. But there is another wall that the Chinese have put in place, one that most people have not heard of. It is that wall that has an impact on our lives. You likely won’t read about it, unless you follow industry news for waste and recycling.
For years, the joke in the recycling industry has been “don’t worry about it, the Chinese will buy it." For years we have been shipping out low grade recyclables to the Chinese, but now the joke is on us. Effective 1/1/2018, there are certain recyclables (24 of them) that will no longer be allowed to enter China. Most people will not be aware of that or understand how it impacts them.
China and other nations have been the dumping grounds for materials that are nominally called recyclable. The United States exports 37 million metric tons per year of various commodities to be recycled, of that volume roughly 1/3 goes to China. From the perspective of the Government of China, they don’t want to be a garbage dump. They are pushing for a cleaner supply of materials. You really can’t fault them for that. They have previously issued warnings about this and of course we ignored them. Now we have a problem. Actually, we have lots of problems.
When you put your recyclable plastics, cans, and paper into the curbside bin, you call it recycling. It truly is the first step of gathering and sorting. From your curb, it will go to a facility where it will be sorted again. This sorting process is imperfect and with the advent of single stream MRFs (materials recovery facilities) the volume of materials handled has increased while the rate of contamination has also increased. To complicate it even more, not everything going in has an easy path out. In the case of plastics, they are difficult to identify at a high rate of speed. The standard practice was to remove the easy to identify materials and let the rest go. The materials that were left behind were sold to the Chinese market to let them finish sorting. The same scenario applies to mixed paper coming through. It is predominately this type of material that is being banned, because the contamination level is too high. It has always been easier and more cost effective to ship this material overseas rather than bother with it here.
We lack sufficient processing capacity in the U.S. to handle the volume of materials we generate in terms of sorting capacity. In addition to that, we lack the ability to deal with the sorted material in terms of being able to properly wash, dry, grind, and pelletize to make it ready for reuse. This is before we consider that our manufacturing plants can’t use all of the material even if we could make it ready for use. In short, we don’t have the capacity to close the recycling loop. All of this made for the justification to ship the raw materials overseas. Of course, for a long period of time the Chinese have given this material back to us in the form of cheap and inferior goods. This seems like a lesson we haven’t learned. In the years preceding World War II, the Japanese were major buyers of cheap scrap steel, which they eventually gave back to us at Pearl Harbor.
The real question is, how does this affect you? Most curbside recycling programs already have a fee-for-service built in. The balance of the cost is offset by the sale of the recovered commodities. If there is no market for these commodities then the cost has to be covered in other ways or the program has to be eliminated. Secondary to that is the cost of the MRF. If it is publicly owned it was financed via a bond issue. If it is privately owned, it was financed. In either case the financial return from the sale of the commodities is pledged to support the repayment of the financing mechanism. That repayment is a commitment whether or not the facility is up and running. It is conceivable that we would see increases in service fees across the board (not just recycling) from a private hauler to make up for the loss of revenue, and in the case of a municipality an increase in taxes to pay the cost: a cost to protect the credit rating, not a cost to provide an actual service.
What we need to look at is how to avoid any further complications, how to avoid being held hostage by a foreign power. We need to look at how we, as a nation, can handle our own waste internally. How we can utilize the waste as a resource. If we truly desire to have recycling as a viable component of our own environmental stewardship we need to take the added steps in a manner that truly benefits us. Those steps have to include improving and upgrading our own recycling infrastructure so that we have the capacity to handle our own waste. We have to start building our own industries to make new products here and exporting finished products instead of trash. We need to think long term instead of what’s quick and easy today.