It’s time to accept that our China market problems are not going away

Columns - Waste Watch

June 18, 2018

We cannot avoid it—the export doors to China are closing for most recyclable scrap materials. China, which was a home to 60 percent of U.S. recyclables exports, is now holding to its National Sword and Blue Sky initiatives that have imposed stricter quality standards for materials entering its ports and set deadlines for material bans. Recently, importation of certain scrap materials had been entirely halted from May 4 through June 4. Trade tariff policies also are now a factor threatening U.S. exports, and recyclers are caught in the middle. While many recyclers throughout the country are seeing a drop in commodities prices because of recent market factors, there has been a prevailing hope that things will change soon.

It’s time to stop waiting and take action: We have to accept that China has chosen a new path that it doesn’t plan to waver from, and so we too must change and adapt to a post-China recyclables market era. This new way of operating must consider lessons from the past while setting the path to a future where we bank on emerging technologies.

So what lessons from the past seem most appropriate in charting our course forward? The most important is that you can always find a market for a quality product. China doesn’t want poor quality feedstock materials and neither do we. The answer is to do a better job of preventing undesirable materials from getting into recycling bins/carts to begin with while simultaneously doing a better job of removing them from collected recyclables. This means that if we want to continue saving money on single-stream recycling collection, more emphasis and money needs to be invested in proper consumer education regarding what is acceptable to place in bins at work and at home. We also need to place a greater importance on investing in sophisticated technologies that can more reliably separate out undesirable contaminants at single-stream processing facilities.

Beyond doing a better job creating quality recyclable commodities, we also have to find ways to build local, U.S.-based markets to handle our current and expanding supply of recyclable materials. Incentives will need to be put into place that encourage manufacturers to use more recycled content. These incentives could be in the form of tax breaks and credits or could involve an emphasis on public-private partnerships developed to facilitate manufacturing with recycled content. Organic materials are a particularly good resource for local farming and agricultural use since they help replenish depleted soils and retard erosion. This is something every community in the U.S. can take on to help keep resources in the country.

Our new paradigm must also acknowledge that there are currently some multimaterialed products that defy the logic of being broken down and recycled for their component parts. The question of what to do with this inconvenient portion of the waste stream has to be tackled while we continue to develop new recyclables markets and products.

To achieve reductions in the hard-to-recycle components of our waste stream in a post-China recyclables market era, we will have to open our minds and accept new approaches. Because fuel is an ever-growing need in the U.S. economy, conversion technology could offer an economical way to handle this portion of the waste stream. New alternative conversion technologies from Europe and elsewhere are already showing promise in creating gas, liquid and solid engineered fuels. The U.S. would be wise to consider some of these methods for handling this part of the waste stream.

To bring this full circle, the China import situation is real. If the U.S. is going to thrive in the coming years, action needs to be taken to create a new paradigm where quality is the norm, businesses are held accountable for their manufacturing processes and new technologies for diverting waste are embraced. Although China may be closed off for the foreseeable future when it comes to accepting U.S. recyclables, there are still a lot of available avenues that are profitable and responsible if we’re willing to change our approach.