This post was written in conjunction with fellow ILSR co-founder and Public Good initiative director David Morris.
China’s recent ban on the import of many categories of scrap has sent tremors through the American recycling community, for good reason. China has become by far the world’s largest consumer of scrap, increasing ten-fold its imports 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, 40 percent to China. China buys about 60 percent of our mixed paper, one of the largest single recycling material by cities, and almost 70 percent of scrap plastics other than PET.
As China’s appetite for scrap increased, U.S. cities, as a matter of convenience, moved toward a one-bin recycling collection system. Until the early 21st century virtually all communities had households separate out one or more categories of waste at the curb. Single stream places all recyclables in the same container, which is then sent to a central Material Recycling Facility (MRF) for processing.
In 1995 only 5 cities in US had adopted single stream recycling. In 2003 this had risen to 94. Soon single stream became the norm with 65 percent of the population using that system in 2010, up from 29 percent in 2005. The percentage using dual recycling systems plummeted from 70 percent to 34 percent.
Curbside separation results in high quality materials. Single stream dramatically increases contamination rates. While dual stream contamination might be in the 1-3 percent range, single stream raises it to 10-12 percent and in some cases 20 percent or more. Waste Management, which aggressively encouraged the switch to single stream, concedes contamination is on average 16 percent and can be up to 50 percent.
Single stream collection and mega MRFs were designed for a Chinese market with no restrictions. But in 2013, China began imposing quality restrictions. High contamination rates required much more work to extract usable materials as well as disposing of toxic waste, and rising Chinese wages made separation even more expensive. After China imposed quality restrictions on waste about 10 percent of U.S. shipments were rejected. Then in June 2017 China announced a much more restrictive policy. It notified the WTO that by the end of the year, it would no longer accept imports from 24 categories of solid waste and imposed a maximum contamination rate of 0.3 percent, an effective ban.
China has imposed a hold on import permits since May and even if lifted, shipping times are such that the materials may not arrive in China until after the ban takes effect.
The Chinese also want to rely more on their own burgeoning waste materials. They will “gradually halt the importation of solid waste that can be replaced by domestic resources: by the end of 2019” and plant to increase domestic recycling by 100 million tons.
The impact on United States recycling markets and companies has been unprecedented.
The value of a ton of single stream recyclables dropped in half by September. The price of corrugated fiber (OCC) dropped by about 60 percent. Mixed paper prices plummeted by 70 percent if markets could be found at all.
As a result, recycling rates have begun to fall. In California 2 million tons of waste have been sent to landfills this year. Oregon’s has said it might approve exemptions that allow landfilling previously banned recyclable materials “on a large scale” for the first time. MRFs are warehousing bales of mixed waste and scrap plastics and are running out of storage space.
ILSR sees three future developments:
- Increasing exports to other countries with low labor costs where contamination is more accepted, such as Egypt, Vietnam and Thailand.
- Restructuring the U.S. single stream recycling system to improve quality. But this will raise costs as much as $30 per ton due to increased labor and slower conveyor belts. Which may encourage communities to revive dual stream recycling. Marquette, Michigan successfully did this in 2014. Fayetteville, Arkansas’ curb sort system boasts high recycling and low contamination rates and already competes favorably with single stream,.
- Creating or recreating domestic markets for scrap. Increased contamination resulted in the closure of many scrap based paper mills, 9 in California alone since 2000. Manufacturers are fashioning new construction materials out of low-grade plastic scrap. Some communities are focusing on organics, construction debris, glass and other materials that traditionally have domestic, often local markets.
With timely infrastructure investment, the U.S recycling industry can clean up its act and stimulate domestic scrap based industries.