Recycling’s Sword of Damocles

China's unwillingness to keep buying low-value U.S. waste has destroyed the industry's economics, but the truth is that far too much of what we throw in the recycling bin has always just been garbage.

A procession of waste trucks lumbers through the security gate of the Fremont Recycling and Transfer Station before grimly disgorging its share of the facility’s roughly 1,000 tons per day of curbside recyclables. Inside the warehouse, about 30 employees wearing neon orange vests and hard hats line up on either side of a 25-foot-long conveyor belt plucking non-recyclable materials — Target shopping bags, teddy bears, greasy Domino’s Pizza boxes — from the waste stream by hand.

Surveying the warehouse floor, General Manager Rich Dubiel gestures toward a soiled ice cream container at the base of a 15-foot pile of paper recyclables. “The moisture and potential mold this has could contaminate an entire bale,” he said.

These days, no more than 0.5 percent of a bale of recyclables can contain non-recyclable materials, a standard that is rigidly enforced by inspection authorities at the Chinese facility that Fremont’s waste is bound for. Processors are held to strict quality requirements for the few remaining materials that U.S. companies are still able to recycle through Chinese markets. Bales that do not meet inspection are either redirected to different end-markets in Southeast Asia or sent back to U.S. ports and placed in landfills, both of which are extremely expensive and consume considerable amounts of fossil fuels.

In response to these new standards, the Transfer Station has had to slow down its equipment and hire about 20 percent more floor staff to more carefully filter out non-recyclables. Dubiel said this combination of changes has significantly increased his production costs. At the same time, the revenue generated by the Transfer Station’s recycling sales has declined dramatically as material values plummet.

In his 30-year career in the recycling industry, Dubiel has observed market prices for materials go up and down, but he has never seen anything like this. Some processing centers are stockpiling materials in domestic warehouses in the hopes that they will be able to sell to brokers when markets stabilize. Dubiel also has considered that option, only to conclude that it is futile. Storage spaces are extremely costly, and these changes to the economics of recycling are likely to be permanent. “This isn’t a fluctuating market,” Dubiel said. “This is a market that has dried up.”

Processing in regional centers like Fremont’s Transfer Station is the last opportunity that U.S. entities have to clean up their recyclables before inspection. Yet as revenues continue to decline, such facilities will be impossible to economically operate.

Ask Martin Bourque, Executive Director of the Berkeley Ecology Center, which operates Berkeley’s curbside recycling program and helped to shape our very vision of the promise of recycling. “This is definitely a notable moment for recycling,” he said. “The industry has been disrupted.”

Less than a year and a half ago, the Ecology Center earned money off of the mixed plastics that it collected from the curbs of Berkeley residents and businesses — about 35 dollars per ton. Now, it has to pay 75 a ton just for brokers to take loads of plastic recyclables off of its hands.

The Ecology Center’s recyclables are then sorted by hand in Southern California. From there, only about half are being processed into new materials. The other half ends up in domestic landfills.

Bourque is stressed. The plummeting value of recyclable materials means less revenue for the Ecology Center and a huge blow to its bottom line. And it’s not just non-profit recycling groups like the Ecology Center that are taking a major hit. The entire industry, including companies of all sizes that haul and process recyclables in the East Bay, has been in duress since China, the world’s primary processor of recyclable goods, instituted what it calls the National Sword Policy in January 2018.

The policy banned the import of 24 types of waste materials from foreign countries. That included mixed paper (junk mail, magazines, beverage boxes) and goods made out of plastic resins numbers 3-7 (plastic bags, yogurt containers, clamshell packages) — items that are still collected in recycling receptacles throughout the county and state. Other Pacific Rim countries are beginning to adopt similar contamination standards.

Before National Sword, both non-profit haulers like the Ecology Center and huge private companies like Waste Management had their collections sorted and group into bales at regional processing plants such as Tri-CED Community Recycling in Union City or Davis Street Material Recovery and Transfer Station in San Leandro. The vast majority of bales would then be sold down-market to brokers in China for top dollar. Until recently, in fact, 85 percent of the state’s recycled paper was exported to China.

The loss of reliable brokers in China, which the U.S. recycling industry has leaned on for decades, means that American companies are selling to less-regulated markets that don’t necessarily dispose of the materials in an environmental sustainable way. Haulers and processors have scrambled to create new contracts to sell to end-markets in other Pacific Rim Asian countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and India, although none of these countries has the infrastructure necessary to process the volume of waste that was being sent to China. More alarmingly, far from being recycled into new materials, mixed-plastics that make it to Southeast Asia are frequently burned, placed in landfills, or tossed in rivers.

Some of those same disposal methods are even beginning to return to the United States.


Just One Word: Plastics

Mark Murray, Executive Director of Californians Against Waste, does not blame China for the roots of recycling’s crisis. He believes the reason why foreign countries are rejecting U.S. recyclables isn’t just due to new contamination standards or a shift in commodity value; it’s because processors have been sending them non-recyclable waste all along. He said much of our supposed recycling waste stream has always been disposed of inappropriately ever since the U.S. began shipping its recyclables overseas, years before National Sword went into effect.

“The bins that we’ve been sending to China have had a lot of garbage in them, and that’s the beginning and end of why China has stopped receiving shipments,” Murray said.

Plastics lie at the root of the problem. Murray said the recycling industry only has the capability of processing PETE #1 and HDPE plastics. The National Sword Policy has made it clear that plastics always have had limited recycleability, yet a battle over the recyclability of non-bottle plastics — such as plastic cups, food trays, and bubble wrap — is still being waged.

“Tin, aluminum, steel, cardboard, and glass we know are very recycleable,” Bourque said. “They can be used many times. Most plastics just aren’t like that.”

The dispute over plastics is even baked into the very way that local governments calculate their recycling rates. Rates are not set based upon how much waste is actually reprocessed into new materials. Rather, they are typically based upon the volume of material diverted away from U.S. landfills.

For decades, local governments, especially those on the West Coast with easier access to Asian ports, had an incentive to collect non-bottle plastics and ship them overseas, Murray said. Local governments and their contractors did this even if they couldn’t guarantee that the shipments were actually being reprocessed into new materials in the end-markets. The practice artificially increased the volume of materials diverted away from U.S. landfills and helped municipalities hit their recycling goals.

It is unsurprising then that when the American Chemistry Council and the plastics packaging industries launched campaigns touting the recyclability of these non-bottle plastics years ago, many local governments took the bait, or were pressured to fall in line.

Bourque agrees with Murray’s assessment. “The plastic industries are the ones with the powerful oil lobbying groups behind them,” he said. “They have a major incentive to keep convincing people that these things are recyclable.”

Over the years, haulers and processors in Alameda County have disagreed regarding the recyclability of non-bottle plastics. This has lead to inconsistencies in collection standards between cities, which confused citizens who live in one city and work in another.

“The Ecology Center took a lot of heat for only accepting type 1 and type 2 plastics that we knew we had good markets for,” Bourque said. “We held off accepting these non-bottle plastics in the bins until around 2013 when cities all around us were beginning to accept them.”

While many of the larger hauling and processing companies in Alameda County remain cagey about non-bottle plastics, both Bourque and Murray believe that in order to adequately address the National Sword policy, local governments need to start being more transparent about what materials are actually recyclable. And this means getting honest about plastics.

Environmental advocacy groups across the state believe that cities should stop collecting non-bottle plastics in recycling bins altogether. They reason that because non-bottle plastics cannot actually be reprocessed into new materials, it would be preferable if they ended up in landfills in the U.S. That way, environmental agencies can regulate and monitor the materials rather see them shipped out overseas where U.S. haulers and processors have little knowledge or accountability of where they ultimately end up. Some California cities, including Sacramento, have already stopped accepting them in recycling bins.

StopWaste, a clearinghouse for recycling entities located in Alameda County, has recently organized a National Sword Policy task force that brings together haulers, processors, and city departments. Representatives from StopWaste say there is disagreement amongst members of the task force regarding the recyclability of mixed-plastics. Nevertheless, Communications Manager Jeff Becerra said that Alameda County residents should “look out for changes in what will be accepted in bins in the coming years.”


The Battle Beyond the Curb

While the recycling industry battles out the fate of mixed-plastics, local governments and their partners are pursuing more actionable changes. Many are implementing dual-stream recycling programs that collect can and bottle recyclables in a separate receptacle from cardboard recyclables.

Berkeley and a half-dozen other cities in California already have launched such programs. Dual-stream reduces processing costs downstream. Materials are already sorted, and are less susceptible to food and water contamination, ultimately creating higher-grade, and thus, more valuable recyclable materials.

Foodware is another item that local governments are directly able to control. Municipalities are working to reduce waste volume in landfills by cutting down on the amount of single-use plastic foodware. “We’ve been focusing on not making more recyclable or more compostable foodware, but trying to reduce single-use foodware overall,” Bourque said. In July, a new Berkeley ordinance will take effect that will require restaurants in the city to supply reusable dishware regardless of whether their business offers counter or sit-down services. The ordinance also will enforce a 25-cent charge for all single-use cups, which will encourage patrons to start using reusable containers more diligently.

But local actors can only do so much. The fight against waste cannot simply be won via more and better recycling; it also needs to be waged by reducing our use of non-bottle plastics at the manufacturing and consumer stages. To implement the sweeping changes necessary in the wake of National Sword, players in the recycling industry are calling on California legislators to step in and pass major legislation.

The California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Bill (SB 54) is the most comprehensive state-level proposal seeking to address China’s decision. SB 54 would call on California’s Department of Resources, Recycling, and Recovery and the California Ocean Protection Council, to dramatically reduce California’s dependence on single-use plastic containers. The bill’s authors — Senators Ben Allen, Nancy Skinner, Henry Stern, and Scott Wiener — hope to reduce by 75 percent the volume of single-use packages sold and distributed in California by 2030, and to ensure that the single-use packaging that does circulate is composted or recycled.

One of the ways the bill aims to achieve this is by requiring manufacturers of single-use plastic packaging or products to meet a minimum recycling threshold. Manufacturers of these materials will be required to demonstrate a recycling rate of at least 20 percent by 2022 and at least 40 percent by 2026.

Even more notable is the bill’s proposal to revamp California’s domestic recycling processing capabilities. In an effort to reduce California’s dependency on broken international markets, SB54 will allow jurisdictions to build instate recycling infrastructure and foster domestic markets for recyclable materials, both of which atrophied when the U.S. began relying heavily on exporting internationally in the mid-1990s.

Voices in the recycling industry are confident that SB 54 will be approved by the legislature, given the approval of a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags in 2014 and support for a plastic straw ban in 2018. “Sacramento hasn’t had this kind of attention on recycling since the 90s,” Bourque said.


Real Progress Starts at Home

Unfortunately, this new regulatory infrastructure will take years to build. Representatives from all levels of the recycling industry agree that the most expedient action that Californians can take to address National Sword is to clean up their habits at the bin. “Dirty diapers, garden hoses, sprinkler pipes,” said Dubiel on behalf of Fremont Recycling and Transfer Station, “these are all things that we see coming into our facilities every day.”

Even when people aren’t flagrantly violating recycling rules, U.S. citizens have formed a culture of what the industry calls “aspirational recycling,” a personal policy of tossing materials into the blue bin when there’s doubt about their recyclability.

While people think that recycling when in doubt increase the chances that materials will get processed, it actually makes it harder for recycling processors to successfully redirect materials for eventual reuse. Such aspirational recycling requires processors to slow down their operations to hand pick non-recyclable or soiled materials, which can easily destroy the quality of entire bales.

Beyond just creating pristine recycling bins, environmental advocates stress that people need to become better consumers. “Individuals should educate themselves on what is really recyclable and avoid products in packages that they know are not,” said Murray of Californians Against Waste. “If consumers have a product or brand that they really love that comes in non-recyclable materials, they should contact that company and say that they are no longer going to purchase it if it comes in non-recyclable plastics.”

Individuals can also avoid the headache of determining what to do at the bin by steering clear of single-use packaging altogether, and adopting new shopping habits like opting for bulk buys.

Local and state governments are gearing up to invest in public outreach programs to drum up a seismic shift in citizens’ recycling habits.

“When recycling took off in the 1990s, there was a really robust outreach program with PSAs, billboards, and school programs,” Bourque said. “We really need to see this level of education about what is and is not recyclable again.”

As a joint authority, StopWaste is responsible for developing sample bill inserts and ads for haulers and city authorities in Alameda County. “We want to shift to a message of quality over quantity when it comes to recyclables,” Becerra said. His colleagues at StopWaste are working on messaging that emphasizes cutting down on the amount of packaging that citizens use in the first place. “That way, consumers don’t have to make hasty judgments calls when they get to the bin,” said Becerra.

Meanwhile, in response to National Sword, many cities across the U.S. are shuttering their recycling programs altogether. Some cities, including Philadelphia, are burning curbside recycleables in incinerators. Others, like Memphis, are sending all materials placed in recycling bins directly to regional landfills. Drop-off recycling programs in Illinois that have been in place since the mid-90s are being terminated.

National outlets are calling it “the end of recycling.” Industry representatives in Alameda County want to push back against that cynicism. “There might be some smaller towns that say they can’t recycle anymore, but that’s just not the case in the Bay Area,” Becerra said.

The Ecology Center, Waste Management, the Fremont Recycling and Transportation Center, and other East Bay haulers and processors are determined to keep recyclables moving. “The recycling industry is in a very difficult situation financially right now,” Bourque said. “But hopefully a lot of really exciting innovation is going to come out of that.”

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