The global crisis that may force the change we need
Over the past 20 years, China became the primary market for recyclables from across the globe. Through 2017, nearly 30 percent of all recyclables were imported by China, including half of the paper and plastics recycled globally.
In January 2018, China placed a ban on the types of recycling it will accept from multiple countries, including the United States. The ban covers more than 50 types of waste, such as stainless steel, PVC and certain textiles.
Jennifer Rivera, communications director at Waste Management, shared what is being done and how people can help.
Tell us a bit about the recycling crisis. When did it start, and why?
Starting with Operation Green Fence in 2013, China implemented policies intended to reduce contamination flowing into the country to help clean up their environment.
In 2017, China implemented National Sword, which banned certain materials and imposed much stricter contamination limits. In 2018, additional policies were implemented in Operation Blue Sky, including inspections of all loads and temporary suspension of import licenses.
What are some potential solutions for the recycling crisis?
China’s policies affect the recycling industry on an international scale. This is an industry challenge and Waste Management is collaborating with industry partners and customers to address it.
Waste Management is continuing to invest in recycling technology. We are working to reduce the amount of contamination in materials coming into our Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) through education, so that we can meet the stringent quality requirements. We are collaborating with communities, businesses and other partners to raise awareness of what is and isn’t recyclable. At our MRFs, we have added labor and slowed down processing to hand-pick more contamination from lines. We spend extra time quality-checking finished bales to remove any contaminants.
Will the ban be lifted?
Not likely. In 2018, China announced a ban on all recycling imports by 2020.
How have China’s changing recycling policies affected Waste Management’s processes?
Waste Management is now exporting less than five percent of material to China, compared to 27 percent in 2017.
Waste Management is actively cultivating alternative markets for recyclable materials. In Arizona we have local markets for glass and steel. We sell paper, plastics and other materials to domestic and global buyers.
All markets – domestic and export – require high quality recyclable materials with little to no contamination. We are focused on reducing contamination to help move materials to end markets.
Given continued market volatility, we must all work together on solutions. We all have a role – and a responsibility – to make recycling successful.
What happens to all of the stuff that goes into the recycle bin locally?
Waste Management continues to find end-use markets for clean bottles, cans, paper and cardboard. However, 25 percent of the material put in the average recycle bin is what we call “contamination.”
These items include non-recyclable materials that must be sorted out and disposed (like plastic toys, clothes and yard waste), hazardous materials that create safety threats for our workers (like propane tanks, pool chemicals and needles) and recyclable materials that have been ruined by food, liquids and other contaminants (greasy pizza boxes, coffee-soaked newspaper, food-coated containers).
Contamination increases processing costs to sort out and dispose of non-recyclable material. Extra time is spent quality-checking finished bales to remove any contaminants. The non-recyclable material (“residue”) removed during processing must be transported to a landfill for disposal.
While we are working to remove contamination at our MRFs, we must reduce the inbound volume of contamination. We are working with our customers and our industry partners to educate them on the proper items to recycle (clean bottles, cans, paper and cardboard).
It is important to note that recycling is not simply about putting something into the recycling cart. Rather, the benefits of recycling are only realized when material is used to make a new product or packaging, reducing the use of virgin material.
We encourage consumers to look for and purchase goods made with recycled materials, so that we can keep recycling sustainable. Plastic water bottles can be turned into fiber for clothes and filling for sleeping bags. Steel cans are recycled into steel beams and rebar for construction projects. Plastic milk jugs or laundry detergent bottles can be recycled into plastic benches, Frisbees, patio furniture and recycling bins. And recycling can have quick results. An aluminum beverage can, recycled today, could be back on the shelf as a new can in 60 days.
What can consumers do to help?
Whether at work, at home or in the community, Arizonans can make a big difference in recycling by only recycling those materials accepted in their community’s recycling programs.
Place clean and empty bottles, cans, paper and cardboard in the recycling bin and keep out other items.
Recyclable materials should be placed loose in the recycling cart (not bagged).
Plastic bags and other “tanglers” (garden hoses, string, holiday lights, plastic wrap) jam up the sorting machines and bring operations to a halt. Workers stop the machines to cut off the tangled materials several times per day.
It is very important to keep all trash out of the recycling cart. Food, liquid and other waste can ruin good recyclables and send them to the landfill instead of to their next best use. If it’s not a clean bottle, can, paper or cardboard, it probably belongs in the trash. An overlooked can of soda, box of food or bag of waste can burst and ruin an entire batch of recyclables, sending it all to the landfill. When in doubt, throw it out.
For more: resource-recycling.com/recycling.
2013: CHINA WANTS TO CLEAN UP
China’s government vows to reduce incoming recyclable waste to “protect the ecology and maintain people’s health and safety.” The world’s largest receiver of recoverable plastic and paper, this new effort will soon impact the entire planet and nearly all of its industries.
FEBRUARY 2013: OPERATION “GREEN FENCE”
China launches intensive inspections of incoming loads of scrap material, in an effort to enforce import regulations. The operation is supposed to end in November 2013, but industry experts are doubtful.
FEBRUARY 2017: OPERATION “NATIONAL SWORD”
This Chinese action attempts to halt smuggling operations and groups using illegal permits to import materials. Scrutiny is directed toward bales of low-grade plastics and paper with high moisture content.
APRIL 2017: PIVOT BACK TOWARD QUALITY
“National Sword” is also being used to assess overall material quality, not just the legality of import permits. Customs officials are believed to be checking every container entering the country at certain ports, causing delays for material shippers.
JUNE 2017: “SWORD” ENFORCEMENT CONTINUES
A large raid by Chinese authorities leads to 85,000 metric tons (over 187 million pounds) of illegal material seized.
JULY 2017: THE SCOPE WIDENS
China elaborates on the ban, noting it will cover post-consumer plastics, unsorted mixed paper, textiles, select trace metals, and more. The government also describes a larger plan to stop importing materials that can be recovered in the country of origin.
Early-October 2017: Falling fiber values
Prices for old corrugated cardboard/containers (OCC), like Amazon packages, plummet dramatically. OCC was not banned, but import permits have not been renewed in nearly five months.
OCTOBER 2017: LANDFILLING RECYCLABLES
Companies in the pacific northwest turn to landfilling some recyclables. Municipal programs hesitate to make changes to the materials they accept, because of the difficulties of reintroducing them in the future.
OCTOBER 2017: WORD GETS OUT
The impact of China’s regulatory changes hits the mainstream media, with CNN, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal and countless news outlets nationwide devoting space to the topic. The U.S. World Trade Organization delegation and the U.S. Department of Commerce are brought in to help.
JANUARY 2018: KEY PERMIT DETAILS
The first five rounds of 2018 import permits are issued for Chinese importers. Plastic imports are extremely limited, which presents a major issue.
MARCH 2018: BREWING TRADE WAR
Tensions between the U.S. and Chinese governments are ramping up, as both countries announce tariffs on a variety of products. U.S. delegates to the WTO call for China to dial back scrap restrictions.
APRIL 2018: BAN EXPANDS
China announces additional materials it plans to prohibit from import by the end of the year. The new list includes post-industrial plastics, which means virtually all non-recycled plastic will be banned from entering the country by the end of 2019.
MAY 2018: VIETNAM OVERLOADED
The large increase in scrap paper and plastic imports into Vietnam leads authorities to take action. Officials report numerous permit violations that have increased in 2018. Vietnamese ports report becoming overloaded with scrap materials and temporarily stop accepting loads of recovered plastic.
JUNE 2018: RIPPLES ACROSS SE ASIA
Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand join Vietnam in either enacting restrictions or considering them. The countries are already well beyond max capacity for the scrap paper and plastic they import this year.
JUNE 2018: CHINA RESPONDS
Multiple entities appeal to the World Trade Organization about China’s scrap import policies. In an official response, the Chinese government indicates it has a clear understanding of the impact of its policies. China’s response says the change in global markets will spur U.S. job growth through increased processing infrastructure, and promote environmentally sound waste management practices by keeping material within the country that generated it.
JULY 2018: TOTAL BAN PROPOSED
A new proposal from the Chinese government would completely ban imports of recovered fiber and every other form of “solid waste.” Earlier reports had suggested a 2020 implementation date for the plan, but the government is looking to review a draft in December.
AUGUST 2018: RECYCLING REVENUES FALL
Export market shifts slash into recycling revenues for Waste Management and other publicly traded haulers, with poor fiber prices cutting one company’s recycling revenues in half.
DECEMBER 2018: MARKETS AND MRFS EVOLVE
Export data shows that mixed paper is still moving to overseas markets but exports are down 24 percent compared with 2017.
JANUARY 2019: CHINESE POLICIES WORKED
Trade statistics from the Chinese government indicate the country’s recycled plastic imports fell by 99 percent in 2018 compared with the previous year.
— Source: Waste Management, resource-recycling.com.