U.S. Recycling Woes Pile Up as China Escalates Ban

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By Adam Allington

Tens of thousands of tons of recyclables have been diverted to U.S. landfills in recent months as the reality of China’s new ban on certain types of imported waste takes hold.

The ban, which went into effect Jan. 1, covers imports of 24 types of solid waste, including unsorted paper and the difficult-to-recycle types of plastic, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET), commonly used in plastic bottles.

And China’s import restrictions become even tighter March 1, increasing the sense of urgency U.S. recyclers feel to find new outlets for their products. At the same time, some industry officials say the situation could be a blessing in disguise if it eventually prods the U.S. toward processing more of its own recycling.

“What we’re seeing now is really unprecedented,” said Julie Miller, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

China has been by far the largest market for U.S scrap exports—in many cases the recyclable materials Americans put in curbside containers. China’s crackdown, now three months old, has both U.S. and global waste collectors scrambling to find new markets for their recyclables to avoid disrupting curbside collection services.

Landfill Waivers

Starting last September, Oregon’s (DEQ) established a short-term waiver process to help alleviate the anticipated backup of materials at recycling separating centers, known in the industry as material recovery facilities, or MRFs. Since then, Oregon DEQ has approved 14 separate waivers to dump 6,107 tons of erstwhile recycling into landfills, with more waivers yet to come, Miller told Bloomberg Environment.

“The amount of materials coming into the MRFs have not slowed down,” said Miller. “This is going to lead to changes in programs in some cities about what you can and can’t recycle.”

Massachusetts has also approved more than 40 landfill waivers since November.

Likewise, public works officials in Boise, Idaho, recently suggested the city stop accepting mixed paper recycling for a year, until better options open up. If that happens, the city estimates about 640 tons of paper would end up in landfills every month.

Other Shoe Drops March 1

China is also severely tightening standards for the imports it will continue to take. Previously, China would accept bales of mixed paper containing up to 2 percent impurities—which could be everything from bits of garden hose, to diapers to propane tanks. But starting March 1, the impurity threshold falls to 0.5 percent for both mixed paper and plastic bales.

Once recyclables have been collected, they are brought to a MRF to be separated, decontaminated and compressed into bales for shipment to mills that can make them into new products.

Some recycling centers say China’s stricter standard will prove virtually impossible for U.S. facilities to meet over the short term.

“I think there is going to be a tremendous amount of paper going to landfills,” said Nina Bellucci Butler, CEO of More Recycling, a recycling consulting firm based in Sonoma, Calif. “The 0.5 standard is just unworkable.”

Bellucci Butler says MRFs are doing everything they can to increase the purity of their bales by slowing down sorting lines, which decreases volumes and increases costs. Those costs will ultimately have be passed on to customers when new contracts are negotiated.

In some cases recyclers are stockpiling inventory, hoping that new domestic and international markets can open up, a move that Bellucci Butler says is a short-term solution at best.

“MRFs are chasing this idea of a perfectly clean paper bale, but that is nearly impossible to achieve,” she said, “and building new capacity to process recycled paper doesn’t happen overnight.

India, Malaysia Fill Some of Void

China is the largest market for U.S. recycling exports, accounting for more than 40 percent of all recycled commodities in 2016, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

As China closes its doors to recovered materials as part of that country’s broad campaign against “yang laji,” or “foreign garbage,” new markets in Southeast Asia are absorbing some of those materials.

“As China started to drop off, we’ve really ramped up volumes of mixed paper going to India,” Brent Bell, president of recycling for Waste Management, the largest U.S. landfill and recycling company, told Bloomberg Environment.

According to Bell, of the nearly 2 million tons of recycling Waste Management processed in the fourth quarter of 2018, only 800 tons was diverted to a landfill, all in Massachusetts.

“In general the global economy hasn’t gone down, which means the demand for recycled feedstocks is still there,” he said, “We’re seeing these alternative markets really stepping up.”

Malaysia nearly quadrupled its U.S.-sourced imports of mixed plastics last year, jumping from about 9,600 metric tons in 2016 to nearly 38,000 metric tons, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Malaysia also imported substantially more recycled polyethylene, as did Thailand and Vietnam.

But others caution that the ability of emerging markets to fill China’s shoes may be limited, because shipping costs will likely be much higher than they were in sending goods to China.

Sending recyclables to China is cheaper because it travels on ships that would “otherwise be empty” when they return from delivering consumer goods in the U.S. and European Union, said Brad Lovaas, executive director of the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association. “It’s been a circular economy that we’ve relied on for decades.”

A Blessing in Disguise?

While more paper and plastic ending up in landfills is not desirable, industry officials said it could ultimately drive the U.S. to process more of its own recycling.

“We need to take an active role in creating more demand for the materials our members are processing,” said David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, which represents more than 9,500 public- and private-sector professionals in solid waste management.

The association has created a recycling task force to assist U.S. and Canadian companies, as well as local governments, concerned about the future of their recycling programs.

“Now that China’s waste import restrictions have taken effect, reducing contamination will be an obvious focus,” Biderman told Bloomberg Environment. “However, the task force will also evaluate strategies for increasing demand, such as mandates for recycled content, and federal and state funding for recycling.”

Oregon recently approved $500,000 in materials management grants to promote the prevention, reuse or recovery of solid wastes.

Neighboring Washington recently expanded a campaign to grow the market for 100 percent recycled containers. Participants including Coca-Cola Co., Campbell Soup Co., and Keurig Green Mountain Inc. have signed commitments to identify and utilize products with 100 percent recycled containers in their facilities.

Contamination Starts in the Bin

Many recyclers point to a conflict between “single-stream” recycling, which allows unsorted recyclables to be placed in one receptacle, and the recent push to limit bale contamination.

“The public tends to drop a lot of things off that we can’t take. And it’s not cost-effective for us to spend a lot of time sorting it out,” said Mike Wolf, the office manager at Pacific Steel & Recycling in Missoula, Mont.

Recyclers point to the need to better communicate which products don’t belong in single-stream. First on the list is plastic bags, which when tossed in with the rest of the recycling routinely jam the machines at recycling plants. City officials in Phoenix estimate they lose about $1 million a year because of improper recycling, mostly because of flimsy plastic bags.

“Plastic bags and the switch to lighter shipping materials,” like the inflatable air pillow film used in some packaging, “are wreaking havoc in traditional recycling facilities,” said Bellucci Butler.

A growing number of grocery stores, including national chains like Target Corp., allow customers to recycle plastic bags at their retail locations. So far, California is the only state with a ban on single-use plastic bags.

Bellucci Butler said another potential solution to the contamination question is “secondary MRFs,” such as those being used in Los Angeles, which are optimized to dig deeper into bales after they’ve gone through conventional sorting.

She worries about recent talk by some cities about eliminating certain kinds of paper or plastic recycling.

“If we start telling the public to throw things away instead of recycling, we’re never going to get that material collected later,” she said. “In order to keep it out of landfills and develop new markets, we need to maintain a steady supply.”

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