For decades, cargo containers loaded with American scrap and waste have been shipped to China for recycling. In fact, scrap and waste is the sixth largest U.S. export to China.
It’s worked that way for a long time. They send us containers of consumer goods, and we return those containers laden with scrap. It’s been a boon for the U.S. recycling industry, shipping tons of scrap metal, paper, plastic, rubber and electronics that Chinese recyclers desperately need.
It’s a $5 billion annual business. That is, it was — up until recently.
Last July Beijing notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it would ban the import of 24 varieties of solid waste, effective at the start of 2018. The banned materials include types of plastic and unsorted paper commonly sent from the U.S.
That announcement has U.S. recyclers scrambling for cost-effective alternatives.
Shipping the waste to China has been the most economical option for the U.S. and other developed nations – primarily due to cheap Chinese labor. In fact, shipping the scrap from the U.S. to China is much cheaper than sending it by rail from Los Angeles to Chicago.
In 2016, China imported about 35 million tons of scrap plastic and waste paper from the U.S., Europe and Japan. Unfortunately, Beijing claims, much of that scrap included dirty and hazardous material mixed with solid waste. This contamination, they say, has resulted in serious environmental pollution. Last year, the government shut down numerous recycling facilities and arrested 259 suspects for failure to use the necessary pollution controls.
China’s ban is intended to “reform … the management system of solid waste imports, promote the recycling use of domestic solid wastes, protect the ecological environment and people’s health.”
Adina Adler, an official at the U.S. Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), said the ban caught Western recyclers by surprise. “We respect what the Chinese government is trying to do … and we want to be helpful, but they gave us practically no time for any kind of transition.”
The ISRI is challenging the ban.
“China has an environmental crisis on their hands and they need to do something about it, but we don’t agree on imposing an outright ban,” said Adler. “That’s not the answer.”
The WTO has not yet issued a final ruling on China’s ban. In the meantime, waste exports to China have virtually stopped.
The U.S. currently does not have the capacity to recycle all the waste we produce without exporting. Until we are able to fully process all of our recyclables, we must rely on other countries. Demand is growing in India, Latin America and, particularly, Southeast Asia.
According to the latest report by research and consulting group PCI Wood Mackenzie, Southeast Asia could potentially become “a world leader” in importing plastic waste. The region is now advancing toward increased development of its reclamation capacity and secondary markets.
“With financial investment from China, advances are currently under way across the chain and are gaining momentum,” the report added.
China’s ban may also present an opportunity for U.S. recyclers, particularly with high-value waste (such as clean plastic bottles). But what about low-quality waste, the “bottom of the barrel” stuff?
One answer could lie in the development of new technologies.
For instance, a British company called Recycling Technologies has stepped up to the plate. They’ve developed a method of recycling the most unpleasant mix of dirty plastic into something they call “Plaxx.” Plaxx is a fuel oil which can be used for a myriad of applications, including as a source for new recycled plastic.
According to company CEO Adrian Griffiths, there’s no shortage of raw material to feed the process.
“We chemically recycle plastic. We take it back to the original material, so it can become more plastic again: plastic, back to oil, and back to plastic again. Anything that goes to landfill currently is feedstock for us, and since the recycling figures [for low-quality plastic] are so low, the vast majority of the plastic we want is not in recycling use anyway.”
Sounds like the type of long-term solution we just might be looking for.