China, recycling and the problems with plastic

August 21st, 2019

China’s rejection of plastics

For the better part of the last three decades, China imported much of the recyclable material from the United States, then sorted it and culled the raw materials to use for manufacturing. What wasn’t used would then be sent to a landfill.

These raw materials were a critical part of China’s growth in manufacturing over the past 30 years. Journalist Henry Grabar explains in an article on the news website Slate that the transportation costs were essentially nil because shipping containers sent to the United States filled with consumer goods made in China would return filled with refuse and potentially recyclable material instead of returning empty. In fact, the garbage actually served as ballast for the returning ships. China went from importing seven million tons of recycled material between 1994 and 1998 to 104 million tons between 2009 and 2013, a fifteenfold increase. Then, on January 1, 2018, everything came to a screeching halt.

China had announced a new policy, dubbed “National Sword,” that would reject importing recycled plastics outright, as well as place strict standards on paper imports, especially that which was unsorted and therefore contaminated. In essence, China was saying that it would no longer be the world’s dump. In addition to noting the environmental concerns, Grabar’s April 2019 Slate article points out that China now has enough consumers of its own to mine these valuable resources. It no longer needs, nor wants, America’s trash.

Upheaval in U.S. recycling

Whether you were aware of China’s announcement or not, you may have already noticed the effects on the U.S. recycling system. Prior to the policy change in China, there was enough of a market that communities could, at the very least, break even on the cost of providing recycling services. At times, it had even been profitable, providing another source of income for starving local budgets. After the ban took effect, recycled materials flooded the market and, predictably, the price that recyclers would pay for the material dropped dramatically.

It has now become too costly for many communities to continue their recycling services. Some communities and institutions are discontinuing recycling services altogether, while others are severely limiting what materials they will take. Even those recycling systems that continue to take all materials are running into issues, and many of the recycled items are simply discarded because there’s nowhere else for them to go. The second-largest waste collector in the United States, Republic Services, sold about 35% of its recyclables to China in 2017. After the ban took effect, that figure fell to 1%, Slate reports. In fact, the market for recyclable material has collapsed so severely that much of what has already been collected now ends up in landfills or incinerators, both with quite negative environmental outcomes. There’s simply not enough room for it all and little market.

I’ve noticed these changes locally myself and have seen two nearby institutions take different tacks. The Roanoke Times reported in July 2019 that the University of Virginia is continuing to take all plastics and is employing staff to sort the material before it’s then picked up by a contractor. Because the material is sorted, it’s less likely to be contaminated and therefore more valuable for the recycler. Meanwhile, just over the mountain, James Madison University announced that it will stop accepting most glass and plastic. To be fair, university officials had little choice. Harrisonburg, the community that received JMU’s recyclables, stopped accepting commingled glass and plastic. Had the University of Virginia not already had its system in place and relied on the local community, the university would have had to stop receiving all plastics as well when its community, Charlottesville, stopped accepting them.

Is recycling dead?

Here’s how our recycling system works now. Around the same time that China began accepting U.S. recyclable material, those who were looking for a profit invented what we call single-stream recycling, Slate says. In single-stream recycling, all of the collected material is dumped together, which makes it easier to gather recycling on a large scale. At the same time, this process also made the material less pure and, therefore, less valuable. However, because labor costs in China were so low, that didn’t matter to the bottom line because companies would simply hire low-paid Chinese workers to sort the material. This is the system that has broken down, and it’s likely that single-stream recycling will become less common, necessitating greater commitment from individuals to sort the material, thus creating a purer product.

Some entrepreneurs have gone online and created sites such as Scrapo or Scrap Monster to expedite the sale and purchase of tons of recyclable materials, plastics and metals. Surprisingly, there may also be an uptick in domestic contractors willing to collect, sort and sell recyclable material. Beyond these process changes, the Science History Institute reports, scientists are looking for ways to use plants instead of fossil fuels to make plastics so that the plastic we use will be more biodegradable and less harmful if it ends up in landfills. Other scientists are looking at automation as a way to improve the recycling system.

We are a little more than a year and a half past the great upheaval in the U.S. recycling system. Any changes and developments will take time. We’ve made great progress in learning the ways of recycling in the past 40 years. In our crisis-a-minute world, the dramatic question begs to be asked: “Is recycling dead?” The short answer is no, but this could be a defining moment in the United States for our care of God’s world. As long as the inclination remains to take care of the world in which we live, recycling will have its place. As long as there are people who hate to see anything go to waste, they will find a way and make a way. Grandparents will still carefully fold once- or twice-used aluminum foil to reuse or to repurpose it, and idealistic young people, who have been taught in schools about the value of recycling, will still be creative. The recycling system may currently be broken, but it can be reimagined.


Better recycling

A large amount of the waste material sent to China during the last three decades was contaminated in various ways, which produced a vast amount of excess garbage. The Atlantic says that according to the National Waste and Recycling Association, about 25% of what Americans recycle is contaminated. Simply put, we’re not very good at recycling. Writing for The New York Times, journalist Livia Albeck-Ripka points out six of the most common mistakes people make in recycling, which lead to contamination:

  1. Disposable cups. These are often lined to make them leak-free, but it also makes the cups unusable for most recyclers. Since you have no way of knowing if a cup is lined or not, it’s best simply to throw it away. 
  2. Greasy pizza boxes. Pizza boxes are covered in food contaminants, which make them unusable.
  3. Yogurt cups and other unrecyclable plastics. Many municipalities will not accept plastics numbered 3 through 7. Check the numbers and notice that some plastics have no recycle number. If this is the case, toss them out. 
  4. Oily takeout containers. It’s important to rinse out anything with food residue before recycling.
  5. Plastic bags. While many grocery chains will take grocery bags for recycling, they’re not appropriate for the recycling cart. 
  6. Dirty diapers. Yes, people really try to recycle dirty diapers. They shouldn’t.


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