December 5, 2017 - Fast Company
APR Member Highlight: KW Plastics and Waste Management
China Doesn’t Want Our Trash Anymore, So We Need To Recycle Smarter
Each day, thousands of shipping containers full of American recycling–plastic, metal, paper, old electronics, textiles–are loaded on cargo ships and sent to China for processing and reuse in Chinese factories. For shippers delivering Chinese consumer products to the U.S., it’s a way to fill space on the return trip. But China no longer wants so much of our trash.
In a ban set to take full effect on January 1, China will no longer accept plastic from residential recycling programs, mixed paper, old clothing, and a long list of other materials. The problem, they say, is that the materials are often so badly sorted that garbage–and sometimes toxic waste–is mixed in with materials that have value. China’s own waste production is increasing, along with production of virgin materials, so there is also less demand for scrap materials than there has been in the past.
Without the Chinese market, which imported $5.6 billion in scrap from the U.S. in 2016, some recyclers say that they’re already sending bales of recycling to landfill (the ban has been phasing in since September). In Oregon, for example, 12 different recyclers have gotten permission from the Department of Environmental Quality to trash recyclables when they have no other option; processors and brokers and governments are meeting to find alternatives. In California, the agency Rethink Waste may stop accepting certain plastics in response to the ban. The effects are different in every state–often worse on the West Coast, where it’s especially cheap to ship to China–and also vary between cities.
Others say that the ban is another reason for recycling facilities, and consumers, to do a better job of recycling. In San Francisco, in a 200,000-square-foot recycling plant on Pier 96, four optical sorters scan through old containers, lids, and other waste to quickly identify different kinds of plastic and paper. The facility invested $14 million to upgrade equipment in 2016. “For many reasons, including equipment upgrades, the baled materials from San Francisco’s recycling program are much cleaner, contain much less trash, than the bales from other cities,” says Robert Reed, a spokesman for Recology, the company that runs the facility (and all San Francisco’s waste management). “Because San Francisco bales are cleaner, end-users and manufacturers rate San Francisco bales as higher quality. That’s why even in down economies San Francisco is always able to move its recycling.” The company now sells plastics to countries including Indonesia and Thailand instead.
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