Until recently, China has been the world’s dominant market for recyclable material; in 2016 the country counted for 60 percent of global demand and roughly a third of U.S. exports. But 2018 started with a cataclysmic bang, as China made good on promises to enact stringent standards on imported paper and plastic refuse. That resulted in a complete halt to imports of some 32 recycled materials. A collapse in prices for some goods followed, while others went into a sympathetic swoon. As a result, some cities — Kirkwood, Missouri, and Deltona, Florida, among them — suspended recycling altogether, while others scaled back on the types of waste they would accept
Municipal recycling programs were blindsided by China’s market constriction. Malaysia and a few other countries initially accepted what China would not, but they were quickly inundated and closed their markets as well. By spring 2018, mountains of bottles and paper from weekly U.S. collections soon overwhelmed the private-sector processing facilities that work with cities to sort and ship materials. By some estimates, 500,000 tons of paper collected for recycling were likely to end up in landfills by the end of last year.
Now reconcile last year’s doom-filled news reports with this assertion from Neil Seldman, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), who in his work for the nonprofit has helped public works departments in Los Angeles, Austin, Texas, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. set up and fine-tune recycling programs. “The U.S. has the most valuable waste stream in the world,” Seldman says. “And we’re approaching a time when everyone will want it.” So much so, in fact, he says, “China and other countries are investing to get at our recyclables before waste companies can landfill the valuable materials.”
Take a closer look at market realities, and the plot thickens: Paper companies, including several Chinese firms, find conditions attractive enough to increase spending to bring on new capacity to handle recycled mixed paper and corrugated cardboard. What’s more, by mid-2018 China’s orders for processed recycled plastic pellets had climbed to 500 million pounds a month.
Evidence suggests that recycling is still the most cost-effective way for cities to handle their trash. National averages are not tabulated, but ILSR’s Seldman says it’s instructive to survey the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. He says incineration can cost $40 to $60 per ton there. Transfer costs, which cover moving masses of waste to landfill or recyclables to processing plants, run $50 per ton. And yet recycling costs in nearby places can vary from $20 per ton in Baltimore to $129 per ton in Washington, D.C., 40 miles away. The problem, says Seldman is, “There are many contracts that do not make sense.”
In Portland, Oregon, the numbers break out in recycling’s favor, although the difference is slimmer. Bruce Walker, who supervises that city’s solid waste and recycling program, says recycling costs the city between $90 and $105 per ton, while garbage costs $97.45 per ton. Meanwhile, composting yard debris and food scraps at an average cost of $67.08 nets the city the largest savings.
So where does the market stand? Is recycling on the rocks, or poised to go bigger? How have cities addressed the constriction of the China market, and what have they done to improve the quality and frequency of their recycling programs?