Containers, cartons, wrapping and everything else discarded after a product is used make up about 30% of all American trash, or more than 76 million tons annually. Now the biggest retailers and consumer goods giants are racing to replace everything from plastic envelopes to styrofoam meat trays with fiber-based iterations.
The U.S. paper recycling industry, it turns out, has suddenly found itself in demand — and maybe just in the nick of time. Until 2018, recycling in America — from plastics to paper to assorted waste — was propped up by China’s willingness to purchase much of it, ostensibly for recycling and reuse by its domestic industries. Instead of returning to China empty, shipping containers were filled with refuse, bales of plastic bottles, cardboard and wastepaper.
But when Beijing decided it didn’t want the world’s garbage anymore, slashing the amount it would take while requiring the rest to be near-pristine, the value of American recyclables plummeted. With an excess supply and no one to sell it to, prices for recycled residential paper even touched negative territory. That means cities have to pay someone to take away the material they collect. The S&P 500 Paper Packaging Index has dropped more than 25% since China started restricting trash.
For U.S. towns and cities, with their colorful recycling barrels and bins, what was at best a break-even proposition suddenly became very expensive. Unable to sell recycling at a high enough price, they either had to raise taxes to pay for collection, dump it all into landfills or burn it. Many chose the latter options.