A successful recycling program is a constant balancing act of supply and demand. It depends not only on input—people choosing to recycle and recycling appropriately— but also on output, a market for the recycled materials.
Ironically, China’s move to go green, a proposal to improve its air quality problem by stopping the import of a number of foreign recycled materials by the end of 2017 (some types of glass, metal, plastic, paper and textiles), may have a huge impact on the U.S.’s efforts to go green with recycling.
For a long time, China has been remanufacturing scrap from the U.S. into everyday objects that the U.S. then imports. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. (ISRI), one-third of all the scrap recycled in the United States (including $1.9 billion in scrap paper and $495 million in scrap plastics) is prepared for shipment to the export market, with China as the recycling industry’s largest customer by far. ISRI points out that not only will the U.S. be losing a large market for recyclables when the ban goes through, but that many of the over 155,000 U.S. jobs supported directly by the export of recyclables could be threatened.
While other overseas markets are picking up, the Association of Plastic Recyclers asserts that domestic markets may be poised to pick up the slack. “U.S. plastic reclaimers have the capacity to handle additional tonnage if China bans recycled plastic imports, as expected, at some point this year.” But ACR also goes on to emphasize the need for more robust sorting systems—a combination of ensuring proper recycling efforts and additional mechanical and optical equipment at the Materials Recovery Facilities.
It is precisely the contaminants in the scrap that has led China to propose the ban. As they say in their statement to the World Trade Organization: “[W]e found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China’s environment seriously. To protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted. [Objectives:] Protection of human health or safety; Protection of animal or plant life or health; Protection of the environment.
While our single-stream recycling program in Fairfax County offers an easy way for us to recycle since we can mix all recyclable materials except plastic bags together, it can contribute to greater contamination of the recyclables since it relies on sorting at the Materials Recovery Facilities. As individuals, we do not have control of the recycling end markets, but we can improve the recycling input.
To ensure minimal contamination, we need to be sure that we are recycling correctly: only putting accepted items in the bins (see http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpwes/recycling/minimum.htm for a list of recyclable items) and cleaning items prior to recycling to avoid food or chemical contamination. Even better, of course, would be to reduce our usage of single-use plastics, paper, and metals! We can do our part to keep supply and demand of recyclables in balance.