China, which had long been the world’s largest destination for paper, plastic and other recyclables, phased in import restrictions in January 2018. Global scrap prices plummeted, prompting waste-hauling companies to pass the cost of sorting and baling recyclables on to municipalities. With no market for the wastepaper and plastic in their blue bins, some communities scaled back or suspended curbside recycling programs. New domestic markets offer a glimmer of hope.
About $1 billion in investment in U.S. paper processing plants has been announced in the past six months, according to Dylan de Thomas, a vice president at The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit organization that tracks and works with the industry.
Hong Kong-based Nine Dragons, one of the world’s largest producers of cardboard boxes, has invested $500 million over the past year to buy and expand or restart production at paper mills in Maine, Wisconsin and West Virginia.
In addition to making paper from wood fiber, the mills will add production lines turning more than a million tons of scrap into pulp to make boxes, said Brian Boland, vice president of government affairs and corporate initiatives for ND Paper, Nine Dragons’ U.S. affiliate.
“The paper industry has been in contraction since the early 2000s,” Boland said. “To see this kind of change is frankly amazing. Even though it’s a Chinese-owned company, it’s creating U.S. jobs and revitalizing communities like Old Town, Maine, where the old mill was shuttered.”
The Northeast Recycling Council said in a report last fall that 17 North American paper mills had announced increased capacity to handle recyclable paper since the Chinese cutoff.
Another Chinese company, Global Win Wickliffe, is reopening a shuttered paper mill in Kentucky. Georgia-based Pratt Industries is constructing a mill in Wapakoneta, Ohio that will turn 425,000 tons of recycled paper per year into shipping boxes.
Plastics also has a lot of capacity coming online, de Thomas said, noting new or expanded plants in Texas, Pennsylvania, California and North Carolina that turn recycled plastic bottles into new bottles. Chinese companies are investing in plastic and scrap metal recycling plants in Georgia, Indiana and North Carolina to make feedstocks for manufacturers in China, he said.