Years of educational programs and campaigns to drive awareness about recycling in the U.S. may be headed for the trash. As it turns out, the waste produced by consumption is overwhelming to the point that recycled materials no longer have a marketplace.
According to The Atlantic, much of the recycled material is ending up in the trash.
Where was the recycled trash going? China. Tons and tons of it were sent over on ships, with the materials remade into shoes and bags and new plastic products. But that’s changed.
The country recently restricted imports of some recyclables, including mixed paper — magazines, office paper, junk mail — and most plastics.
China had been the world’s largest consumer of scrap, increasing its imports tenfold from 4.5 million tons in 1995 to 45 million in 2016. About a third of all recycled materials collected in the United States are exported, with 40 percent to China.
China’s “National Sword” policy, enacted in January 2018, banned the import of most plastics and other materials headed for that nation’s recycling processors. The move was an effort to halt a deluge of soiled and contaminated materials that were overwhelming Chinese processing facilities and leaving the country with yet another environmental problem — and this one not of its own making.
“Globally more plastics are now ending up in landfills, incinerators, or likely littering the environment as rising costs to haul away recyclable materials increasingly render the practice unprofitable. In England, more than half-a-million more tons of plastics and other household garbage were burned last year. Australia’s recycling industry is facing a crisis as the country struggles to handle the 1.3 million-ton stockpile of recyclable waste it had previously shipped to China,” Wired recently reported.
Because of China’s revamped recycling policies, what previously ended up getting re-purposed into useful goods is now getting turned into fire and smoke. The loss of this overseas dumping ground means that plastics, paper and glass set aside for recycling by Americans is being stuffed into domestic landfills or is simply burned in vast volumes.
In the U.S. between 2000 and 2016, the solid waste industry generated around $60 billion in revenue. Waste Management, one of the biggest waste and environmental services companies in the world,generated revenue in fiscal year 2018 of around $14.9 billion.Despite these figures, some waste management companies across the country are telling towns, cities and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling. These municipalities have two choices: pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling or throw it all away.
For example, Franklin, New Hampshire, has operated a program since 2010. When the program launched, Franklin could break even on recycling by selling it for $6 a ton. Now, the town is being charged $125 a ton to recycle or $68 a ton to incinerate. So, the town is burning the waste.
According to The Atlantic, Broadway, Virginia, had a recycling program for 22 years but suspended it, too, after Waste Management told the town that prices would increase by 63 percent. Blaine County, Idaho, stopped collecting recycling and took the 35 bales of the waste meant for overseas to a landfill. The nonprofit Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful has collected more than 400,000 tons of plastic but is keeping it behind its facility where it collects plastic. It’s hoping the market changes, so it can move it.
More waste, fewer options
All of this is taking place after Americans generated 262.4 million tons of waste in 2015. This was up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985.
So, what to do? Part of the current recycling epidemic is that even with the China market cratering, much of what ends up the bins is contaminated, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association. “For decades, we’ve been throwing just about whatever we wanted — wire hangers and pizza boxes and ketchup bottles and yogurt containers — into the bin and sending it to China, where low-paid workers sorted through it and cleaned it up. That’s no longer an option. And in the United States, at least, it rarely makes sense to employ people to sort through our recycling so that it can be made into new material, because virgin plastics and paper are still cheaper in comparison.”
Cleaning up recycling requires employees — people to slowly go through materials, which is expensive. According to The Atlantic, Americans tend to be “aspirational” about their recycling, “tossing an item in the blue bin because it makes them feel less guilty about consuming it and throwing it away.”
Waste items that get tossed aside include soy-sauce packets, pizza boxes, candy-bar wrappers and dry-cleaner bags, to-go coffee cups lids and plastic take-out containers.
Until this changes, the recycling industry is in for a rude awakening. Selling the waste here is hard and that will have a major impact on recycling efforts in communities throughout the country. Couple that fact with the fact that virgin materials are often cheaper to use than recycled materials, the prognosis is that much worse for an industry that’s taken decades to build into a major force. Much of that might disappear as quickly as it took for China to shut down a global industry.
There might be another way to fix recycling: convince people to buy less stuff. That’s not likely to happen. Consumer spending in the U.S. accounts for 68 percent of the GDP. It won’t be a problem solved easily.