The Waste Wake-Up Call

You separate your recyclables. A truck comes to take them away. And just like that, they are gone. But when it comes to waste, there is no “gone,” really.

While most trash produced in America tends to stay here (in one landfill or another), most recyclables have been exported. The vast system of recycling bins and trucks servicing American homes and businesses have been mostly transporting recyclable material in one direction: to China.

Imagine two conveyor belts stretching across the Pacific Ocean, connecting China to the United States. One of the conveyors, flowing from China to the United States, carries new products and materials produced by Chinese factories — computers and electronics, textiles, and plastics — ready for American consumers. The other conveyor moves in the opposite direction — carrying scrap plastic, metal, and paper — discarded by American consumers.

The finished goods flow into the American market to be consumed and thereby create waste, while the raw materials flow into Chinese industry to be spun into more finished goods that will then flow back to America. Like a version of the Law of Conservation of Mass, nothing created, nothing destroyed, merely waste and products circling the globe on an endless conveyor.

Until recently. 

In 2016, 775,000 tons of plastic and 13.2 million tons of paper and fiber traveled from the U.S. to China, where Chinese factories recycled the vast majority into new products to be placed back on the U.S.-bound conveyor. But up to 30% of “recycled” plastics failed to make their way into redistribution, instead making their way into waterways, lakes, and oceans, at significant cost to the environment and to public health.

When it comes to waste, there is no “gone.”

To curb this flood of waste into their environment, in 2018 the Chinese government enacted a policy called National Sword, imposing strict limits on levels of waste contamination and eliminating the imports of 24 types of solid waste. The effect was a near-total ban on imported scrap — cutting off the China-bound conveyor for good. 

To say National Sword caused a disruption in the U.S. waste industry would be putting it mildly. For decades, China had been the outbound destination of choice for tons of recyclable material. Shipped there on barges by the ton, China would re-use what it could, then bury or burn the rest. Your bottles and cans become a new television, or another mound in someone else’s landfill, resulting in modest profits for the exporters, and a source of limitless raw materials for the Chinese. But that was the past.

Now, after National Sword, that transaction has come to an end. China no longer wants the waste, but the supply has not ebbed. Much the contrary, between 2018-2030, an estimated cumulative 95 million metric tons of plastic waste — once headed to China — will need to find a new home.

Waste haulers in the U.S. have been forced to charge higher costs to dispose of recycling material. Most are unable to find an end market, in spite of efforts to locate alternative buyers of scrap. Southeast Asian nations, like Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines once looked promising, but those outlets are also being closed off. And the absence in many areas of a domestic U.S. recycling infrastructure means cities and counties have to either pay higher prices to see their recyclable material processed, or just throw it in a landfill.

One municipality in New Hampshire used to recoup $6 a ton from its recyclable material; now it has to pay $125 a ton to have it recycled or $68 a ton to incinerate it. With economics like these, some cities have suspended or reduced their recycling programs, reduced the number of pickups per month, or cut back on accepted materials. Meaning recyclables — in many cases — are no longer being recycled; they are just trash.

This is a crisis on the order of millions of tons of waste, and it must be addressed urgently and with innovation, investment, and consumer-driven demand. Where we have for decades preached the gospel of recycling, we are now faced with the decision to either abandon that call or work quickly to bring the focus back home, to redirect the conveyor inward, revitalizing American industry as we solve the problem of American waste. 

For decades, our waste has enriched the industry of other nations, while providing a sometimes profitable but mainly expedient solution to the problem of recyclable material. Now that the easy option is gone, we must renew our efforts at recycling our own waste to enrich our own industries, and in the process create a thriving, healthy circular economy.

Rubicon recently published an Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) report, Toward a Future Without Waste. I encourage you to download and read more about what we are doing to transform the entire category of waste and recycling.

Reference: National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling

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