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.

click to enlarge The market for such recyclables has collapsed.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

The market for such recyclables has collapsed.

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.

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