The first materials accepted for curbside recycling had to be carefully sorted into their own bins. But source-separating was a barrier to recycling for many households.
Single-stream, or commingled, recycling became a common strategy for municipalities seeking to raise recycling rates. For nearly 20 years, it worked. But now, thanks to a change in Chinese policy, America’s recycling facilities are in crisis.
With single-stream recycling, one bin containing all recyclables is collected at the curb and delivered to a materials recycling facility (MRF). There, a series of mechanical sorting mechanisms separate the recyclables into salable commodities — primarily paper and plastic. By 2017, roughly one-third of all U.S. recyclables were sold to China for further sorting and reuse. Further sorting is necessary because single-stream recycling contains contaminants — on average, 25 percent. MRFs can reduce contamination to about 5 percent. China is asking for better sorted, clean materials.
For years, China pushed for cleaner materials. Regulations were passed in 2006. In 2013, the Green Fence campaign attempted to enforce the earlier rules.
In 2017, China’s National Sword campaign resulted in the blocking imports of mixed paper, post-consumer plastics, and vanadium slag. Chinese officials set a contamination limit of 0.5 percent on all other waste imports — effectively a total ban. Despite years of Chinese efforts to stop the flow of low-grade recyclables, the ban came as a shock to the West.
There are two paths out of the crisis and both involve radical improvements in recycled materials contamination. The U.S. could clean up its recycled materials to meet the new Chinese standard or start to process more material domestically. If U.S. recycled materials were less contaminated, domestic recyclers would be in a position to operate more profitably.
After the ban was announced, commodities began piling up at MRFs around the country, forcing many communities to take emergency measures. The West coast was especially dependent on China, and struggled to find other markets. Oregon lifted a ban on recyclables at landfills. Communities in Washington state and Idaho are directing recyclables to the landfill, too. Douglas County, Oregon, has stopped recycling altogether.
With China off the market, the glut of recyclable paper and plastic has led MRFs to pay to dispose or recycle materials they once sold for profit. Some recycling facilities have found markets in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India. But neither the U.S. nor the Asian countries that import recyclables have China’s capacity. Communities like Chittendon, Vermont, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and El Paso, Texas, are raising rates to compensate for the loss of revenue. Many MRFs are still stockpiling recyclables, hoping the situation will change.
Every challenge is also an opportunity. It’s not clear if nations will rise to the challenge of the ban. In China, the ban seems to have led to greater consumption of virgin materials, but the ban has been challenged at the World Trade Organization.
State and local governments are renewing their commitment to zero waste policies. Upgrading domestic MRFs to produce a cleaner product and expanding domestic markets for paper and plastic is an obvious priority but will require large-scale investments that will take years to implement.
Systemic changes to manufacturing, distribution, and waste management are needed globally — we need to establish a circular economy that captures materials from products after their useful lifetime. Individual action is a big part of the solution. Citizens must also strive for zero waste to keep resources from finding their way into a landfill.