Recycling, Once Embraced by Businesses and Environmentalists, Now Under Siege

The U.S. recycling industry is breaking down.

Prices for scrap paper and plastic have collapsed, leading local officials across the country to charge residents more to collect recyclables and send some to landfills. Used newspapers, cardboard boxes and plastic bottles are piling up at plants that can’t make a profit processing them for export or domestic markets.

“Recycling as we know it isn’t working,” said James Warner, chief executive of the Solid Waste Management Authority in Lancaster County, Pa. “There’s always been ups and downs in the market, but this is the biggest disruption that I can recall.”

U.S. recycling programs took off in the 1990s as calls to bury less trash in landfills coincided with China’s demand for materials such as corrugated cardboard to feed its economic boom. Shipping lines eagerly filled containers that had brought manufactured goods to the U.S. with paper, scrap metal and plastic bottles for the return trip to China.

As cities aggressively expanded recycling programs to keep more discarded household items out of landfills, the purity of U.S. scrap deteriorated as more trash infiltrated the recyclables. Discarded food, liquid-soaked paper and other contaminants recently accounted for as much as 20% of the material shipped to China, according to Waste ManagementInc.’sestimates, double from fi ve years ago.

The tedious and sometimes dangerous work of separating out that detritus at processing plants in China prompted officials there to slash the contaminants limit this year to 0.5%. China early this month suspended all imports of U.S. recycled materials until June 4, regardless of the quality. The recycling industry interpreted the move as part of the growing rift between the U.S. and China over trade policies and tariffs.

The changes have effectively cut off exports from the U.S., the world’s largest generator of scrap paper and plastic. Collectors, processors and the municipal governments that hire them are reconsidering what they will accept to recycle and how much homeowners will pay for that service. Many trash haulers and city agencies that paid for curbside collection by selling scrap said they are now losing money on almost every ton they handle.

The upended economics are likely to permanently change the U.S. Recycling business, said William Moore, president of Moore & Associates, a recycled-paper consultancy in Atlanta.

To read the full story, visit https://www.wsj.com/articles/recycling-once-embraced-by-businesses-and-environmentalists-now-under-siege-1526209200.

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