By embarking on a more thoughtful and efficient approach to how we reduce, reuse and recycle materials, we will give the next generation the gift of a revitalized recycling industry and a healthy environment.
By Crystal Ward Kent
Earlier this year, the American recycling community was stunned by a knockout punch from the Far East as new rulings from China turned a once profitable relationship upside down. In January 2018, Beijing stated that it was banning intake of most paper and plastic waste in accordance with a new environmental policy designed to free China from being the world’s “dumping ground.” The ban extends to other materials as well, and American recyclers are now scrambling to find a way to dispose of tons of material that normally would be enroute to Asia.
The issue of what to do with this waste is immediate, but out of this crisis might opportunity bloom? China has long turned U.S. trash into treasure, sending waste plastics back to the States in the form of toys, home goods, consumer electronics such as computer cases and much more. Pundits joke that Americans send scrap metal to Asia and it comes back as cars, but there is some truth there. The question is why should Americans let other nations reinvent waste materials into viable goods? Isn’t part of the solution to the recycling issue simply dependent on our own ingenuity and drive?
The U.S. was once a “make it work,” kind of place where nothing was wasted and everything was used until used up. However, post-World War II affluence led to a gradual degrading of this mindset. The U.S. is now not only the world’s largest consumer, but also the planet’s biggest throwaway society. Still, the spark of inventiveness that drove previous generations to cobble together solutions out of spit, grit and twine still exists. Perhaps it is time for Americans to look at waste materials in a new light. If other nations (China, India, South Korea) can repurpose these materials into useful goods, why can’t the U.S.? If other countries can make money out of old auto parts and scrap metals why can’t the U.S.? The technology and know-how exist—if the U.S. has the determination to revamp its thinking and develop America’s recycling industry to its full potential.
How We Got Here
For decades, much of the U.S.’ trash has been out of sight, out of mind, thanks to a pipeline to China that saw millions of tons of waste materials shipped to that country annually. The Chinese took American scrap—especially huge amounts of paper and plastic—cleaned these materials, crushed them and transformed them into raw materials, which could be used by industrial plants. Seventy-two percent of America’s plastic waste went to China, according to the journal Science Advances. The relationship between Chinese industry and American recyclers worked well because it was cheap for U.S. recyclers to ship scrap to China thanks to significantly discounted prices on shipping containers. Ships arrived from Asia carrying tons of Chinese goods, and then headed back to China carrying tons of American scrap. It was a relationship that seemed to work well for all involved—until China sent the recycling world into a frenzy by issuing a virtual ban on accepting foreign waste material.
In January 2018, Beijing not only banned most paper and plastic waste, but it also put other waste products such as cardboard and metal, on the “no ship” list, unless they met certain standards. These products are now required to be cleaned to a contamination level of 0.5 percent before China will accept them. This level is beyond the capability of most U.S. recycling technology. In addition, U.S. recyclers state that China is expected to ban all recycled materials by 2020, a fast-approaching deadline that America, and many other countries, are unprepared to meet. While the recycling industry is still reeling from these new restrictions, trash is already piling up in larger U.S. cities. There is talk of imposing huge fees on citizens in order to fund disposal of materials here at home, of opening landfills and reintroducing incineration. None of these are appealing, profitable or sound solutions; they are merely stop-gaps in a crisis that will continue to escalate unless other solutions are found.
Why is the U.S., with so many technological achievements to its credit, lagging so far behind in the recycling arena? There is no simple answer, but part of the reason is that the U.S. has not been under the gun to solve the recycling problem until now. Blessed with an abundance of open land, America long relied on landfills to solve the problem of trash disposal. Before the Clean Air Act tightened air pollution controls, incineration was another accepted method for disposing of burnable materials—the ocean was another. Many large coastal cities simply loaded trash on barges, took it to the open ocean and dumped it—even though some of this waste often washed back up on shore.
Europe, however, with its much smaller land mass, did not have the luxury of resorting to landfills, and they quickly recognized the air pollution issues associated with major incineration efforts. Air pollution not only had health impacts, but it also damaged valuable monuments, ancient cities and relics—all items critical to Europe’s history, culture and tourism industry. An acceptable solution had to be found; that turned out to be an aggressive and mandatory recycling program. In Europe, virtually everything is recycled.
Technological achievements by global leaders such as swissRTec (producer of vertical shredders, delamination mills and turn-key systems), Steinert (magnetic separation and sensor sorting), and TrennSo Technik (screening and air separation technology), among others, have provided the recycling equipment needed to successfully process everything from electronic waste (WEEE), auto shredder residue (ASR), and plastics to various metal scrap, paper/cardboard and garbage. European recycling companies also provide trash-to-energy technology, which has been embraced throughout Europe, the United Kingdom and further north. Denmark makes extensive use of trash-to-energy plants, which burn 3.5 million tons of waste annually, and provide heat for 20 percent of the country’s 400 district heating networks. Their incineration plants produce three times more heat than energy, so the waste heat is directed into the district heating networks. The plants also produce 5 percent of the country’s electricity. In contrast, only a few U.S. cities have experimented with trash-to-energy as part of their power mix.
Japan has also embraced recycling. As an island nation with limited viable land, it too, quickly saw the need for finding an internal trash solution. Japan recycles more than 2 million tons of electronic waste annually. According to the U.S. EPA, America only recycles 679,000 tons, and that figure does not include a large portion of electronics such as televisions, DVD and VCR players, and related TV electronics. In the States, e-waste represents 2 percent of America’s trash in landfills, but 70 percent of overall toxic waste. In fact, the EPA states that e-waste is still the fastest-growing municipal waste stream. Not only is electronic waste a major environmental problem, it also contains valuable resources that could generate revenue and be used again. Cell phones and other electronic items contain high amounts of precious metals such as gold and silver. Americans dump phones containing more than $60 million in gold and silver each year.
Many nations have been intrigued by Japan’s electronic recycling model, including Russia. In 2017, President Vladmir Putin stated that improving Russia’s recycling is a top priority, and they hosted that year’s 2nd Congress of WEEE Solutions in Moscow last March. The Eurasian Economic Union, which is comprised of the Russia Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, is one of the fastest-growing recycling markets, generating more than 1,500,000 tons of WEEE annually.
A key reason for China refusing to accept waste items is the 2018 U.S. tariff that was imposed on steel and aluminum. When the tariff went into place, China retaliated with its ban on scrap metal and things have escalated from there. While U.S. steel producers have realized some benefits, U.S. manufacturers have not, as many key industrial parts are made in China, and prices for these parts are going up. Those trying to get items produced in the States are running into huge time delays because U.S. steel producers were not prepared for the demand. China has also revealed an extensive list of tariffs on other products, including some virgin plastics. HIS Markit Chemical notes that the North American polyethylene market has about 7 metric tons of new capacity slated to come online in 2022—projects that began before the Chinese tariff went into effect. The U.S. market alone cannot absorb this capacity—it has to be exported, but to where? China had been the target market.
American recyclers are already sounding the alarm that the cost to recycle will go up in the short term. Their industry needs to play catch up in order to absorb all the changes suddenly impacting their waste processing ability. No other country or group of countries can take in the volume of waste that China absorbed, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Even avid scrap importers such as Vietnam, Indonesia and India cannot take in the tens of millions of tons that China easily embraced up until recently.
Officials from public works departments in Washington, DC and Houston are already concerned that if the cost of recycling materials at home goes up—and it is—cities will turn away from recycling or be forced to pass heavy costs on to consumers. Some cities, and some recycling companies, are already thinking about returning to landfills or incineration—choices that do not bode well for air quality and that pose a wealth of health and environmental risks.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Is the China bailout the end of recycling in the States? Does one country’s policy shift dictate doom for a process that is badly needed for so many reasons (the environment and public health being two at the forefront)? Are we not smart enough to solve the problem of our own waste?
Small success stories indicate that perhaps we are, but these seeds of innovation will need lots of encouragement if they are to spread and grow (see Improving Recycling Operation Efficiency Sidebar, page 54). If one company can invest in technology that allows material previously shipped as waste to China to now become a second revenue stream, cannot others follow suit? With education, promotion and innovation, it would seem that many more businesses might jump on board.
A Proactive Approach
It will not be easy, and it will take time for the U.S. to become a nation where recycling is not only an environmental solution, but also an efficient, productive industry. Large-scale investment in state-of-the-art recycling technology will be needed, training will be required, and there will be a learning curve. Consumer and industry education will be needed. A pro-active government that understands and promotes not just the ethics of recycling, but the opportunities for it to become a growth industry and energy provider will be essential. Incentive programs to encourage recycling entrepreneurs at all stages of the recycling stream, and to boost existing companies, could go a long way towards nurturing the recycling seed to sprout and thrive. Additionally, new markets for taking in recycled material and selling recycled products will need to be explored, promoted and solidified. At first, the costs to recycle will be higher, but in the long-term, significant benefits can be achieved. The type of technology provided by firms such as swissRTec and UNTHA is known for its low-maintenance and longevity. This equipment is designed to work hard day in and day out, and for many years to come. Once the starting investment is paid off, profits can be quickly realized and sustained.
Americans are not known for their patience—we want our needs met quickly—but this time, we need to take the long view. The U.S. needs to ensure that the materials we generate are repurposed and not tossed in a landfill or shipped elsewhere for disposal. The recycling process should create jobs and be a wellspring for innovation—how can we continue to transform used materials into new products? We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to keep our air clean and our land used for higher purposes than trash repositories. Trash that cannot be recycled should be turned into a viable component of our nation’s energy mix, helping to power the cities from whence it comes. By embarking on a more thoughtful and efficient approach to how we reduce, reuse and recycle materials, we will give the next generation the gift of a revitalized recycling industry and a healthy environment.
Case Study: Improving Recycling Operation Efficiency
swissRTec America of Kensington, NH, a company specializing in recycling technology, was recently selected by A&E Auto Electric of Spartanburg, SC, to aid in their plant expansion. swissRTec America, Inc., is a wholly-owned subsidiary of swissRTec International of Switzerland. The company sells technology and mechanical systems to the recycling industry on an international scale, and is a leader in designing, building and commissioning turnkey e-waste, scrap metal and ASR (automotive shredder residue) recycling facilities.
A&E Auto Electric has manufactured alternators and starters for 36 years. According to Don Willis, owner and CEO, the company recently decided to venture into the reclamation field because of the valuable copper in their manufacturing byproducts. “Initially, we sold our waste material to China,” he says. “We then realized we could profit from this waste material as well. About eight years ago, we invested in a shredder. However, it quickly became apparent that there was more that could be done in terms of extracting valuable material if we had the right equipment, and that brought us to swissRTec.”
swissRTec’s core focus is the shredding, delamination and separation of valuable raw waste materials from waste compound materials such as electronic scrap, cables, printed circuit boards, mixed scrap metal, aluminum composites and other items.
According to Willis, A&E Auto Electric had looked at several different shredders but had not found one that could reduce material to the size they wanted. “With copper bearing-material, in order to get the most value out of it, you need to shred the material as fine and as cleanly as possible. swissRTec had a shredder that did this, using adjustable choke rings at the base of the shredder. No one else had that feature.”
Since installing swissRTec’s Kubota vertical shredder, Willis has seen a huge difference in the efficiency of his recycling operation. “We are making good headway in terms of getting the copper out of the alternator components,” he says. “We have gotten millions of pounds out and we are just getting started. Our scrap metal dealer could not believe how much we had retrieved, or the quality of the copper. Alternator components have four or five different metals within them, and there is also plastic and trash residue to be removed. From this process, we get #1 copper and busheling steel.”
Willis also had words of praise for swissRTec who have “walked him through” much of the process. “They have been an invaluable resource,” he says. “We are new to this business and they have taken the time to educate us. Our employees are getting up to speed and I know we are going to keep on getting better and better at what we are doing and reap the rewards.”
Crystal Ward Kent is the owner of Kent Creative, a writing, design and marketing firm and a veteran freelance writer. She has extensive experience working with the recycling, utility, medical and environmental industries, and is also active in environmental education. She can be reached at (603) 742-0800, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.kentcreativeweb.com.