The United States exported almost half of its recyclable paper and plastic to China for many years without any issues. It worked well. Americans like to recycle and China wanted the materials to feed their manufacturing base. Things changed, however, when the Chinese government began implementing tighter import restrictions on recyclables in 2013.
As of March 2018, the Chinese government banned mixed paper and plastic bottles and imposed more stringent contaminant standards for the recyclables that it continues to take. The new 0.5 percent standard for contaminants is incredibly difficult to achieve and hurts the domestic waste and recycling industry. Without significant changes, the industry faces serious peril.
Chinese importers have also been limited in the amount of material they can purchase. As a result, bales of paper previously bound for China are sitting in warehouses, outside on parking lots or, in some cases, are landfilled. Unless the Chinese government relaxes its standard and consumers begin recycling smarter, the outlook for recycling is grim.
The U.S. waste and recycling industry is committed to improving recycling quality. Several of our member companies have already made major investments to remove as much contamination from the recycling stream as possible. They have invested in new screening and sorting technology, made improvements to existing equipment, and hired more workers to remove contaminants from the process by hand. They do all this as prices for recyclables fall.
The waste and recycling industry has not stopped there. Many companies have embarked on education campaigns to remind customers what items can and cannot be recycled. About three in four Americans recycle. Recycling is good. We all want to be “green” and protect the planet but a lot of us do not recycle correctly. Instead, we toss things in the recycling bin even when we don’t know if it is recyclable. We hope that it will all just get sorted out at the plant.
That’s called “Wish Cycling” and is leading to more and more contamination in the recycling stream. It is not uncommon to find pizza boxes stained with grease, old garden hoses, and plastic bags and more plastic bags. These items cannot be recycled in the curbside bin. Food contaminates paper and cardboard making them less likely to be recycled. The hose and the plastic bags wrap around the machines that screen and sort items disrupting the operations and reducing the amount of material that can be recycled.
Contamination has been a problem for a long time. However, with increasingly stringent standards, it becomes more important to try to limit it. We need the public to help us by recycling smarter. We need them to be thoughtful, intentional, and deliberate with their recycling. We need everyone’s support to make recycling successful again.
This effort requires a partnership between the recycling industry and the public. We need the public to help by changing behaviors and do things differently. Start by keeping out the food and bags and check in with local municipalities or service providers to see what can be recycled.
The waste and recycling industry is leading on this issue, continuing to meet with federal officials and responding to the multiple rules promulgated by the Chinese government. Most importantly, we are supporting our members’ efforts to educate the public on how to recycle smarter so we can all get this right. If we want to continue to recycle then we must do it well.
We all have a stake now in America’s recycling future.
Robert Lee is chief executive officer of ecotech llc.