The drastic import restrictions on recycled materials that China began imposing last year have thrown American cities for a loop. Prices have fallen for recyclable materials, and some jurisdictions have had to landfill materials for short-term expediency. For the most part, the response so far has been to improve the quality of single-stream, mixed collections through technology and increased labor, reject some materials such as glass and plastic film, and try to educate residents on just what they should and shouldn't be putting in the curbside bin.
Cities can and should do much more to weather this storm and become resilient against future challenges than simply telling Americans that they don't know how to recycle. Recycling is not crashing, and it is not disappearing. Even as cities' recycling operations become more costly, on a per-ton basis recycling and composting can be one-third cheaper than disposal via landfill or incinerator.
China has been the major importer of U.S. recyclables for the past two decades, and market declines due to China's wall of extra inspections, limited ports of entry, limited import and export permits, and prohibitively restrictive specifications have certainly had an impact. But cyclic declines as serious or worse than those affecting today's markets have come and gone, and recycling survived and prospered.
In fact, demand has already rebounded in the wake of China's new restrictions. A 32 percent tariff on Canadian newsprint will prop up domestic recycled newsprint prices. New capacity for mixed paper and corrugated cardboard will be on line in a year in Georgia, Ohio, Oregon and Wisconsin. China is not restricting "furnace ready" recycled-plastic pellets from the U.S.; orders have soared to 300 to 500 million pounds per month. New capacity for processing multiple grades of recycled plastics is opening in Ontario, and another plastics processor is moving from China to Illinois.
In fact, so dramatic is the scramble for "clean stream" U.S. recyclables -- those that are cleaned of food waste and pre-sorted before collection -- that caution is needed. Will the export of processed recyclables to the demands of Asian economies restrict access for domestic manufacturers? U.S. and Canadian paper manufacturing declined precipitously when the Chinese bid up the markets for recycled material in the 1990s and 2000s. Domestic recycling mills could not get enough paper to merit investment.
Based on these realities, the waste industry analyst Chaz Miller advises: "Keep calm and recycle on: The sky is not falling." To keep the recycling engine humming, here are some things that cities, towns and counties can do to recover more wealth from their residents' discards:
• Replace sloppy, high-contamination, single-stream recycling with clean-stream or dual-stream (separating paper from other recyclables), as was recently accomplished in Oakland, N.J. Well-sorted materials always find markets.
• Implement curb-sort recycling, as Fayetteville, Ark., has. Sorting materials at curbside is the best method for educating households, since non-recyclable items are returned in the recycling bin.
• Adopt unit pricing for nonrecycled household waste. This "pay as you throw" approach can double the recycling rate in one year, reducing overall waste by up to 40 percent. More than 7,000 towns and cities in the United States now use this system. Worcester, Mass., has used it since 1993 and saved $10 million in avoided incineration costs.
• Process recovered materials in properly scaled in-town processing facilities to reduce transportation costs and create local jobs.
• Contract directly with-end user markets; contract with commercial material recovery material facilities to meet specifications.
• Focus on composting food discards, including soiled paper, with yard debris. This material is at least one-third of household waste. Markets are local and year-round.
• Use glass locally as clean fill or process it into abrasive material for local industry.
• Establish and recruit enterprises that repair and resell bulky waste items such as furniture and appliances.
In short, the actions China has taken do not ring the death knell for U.S. recycling -- far from it. Rather, it's an opportunity for our cities to realize the full potential of appropriate, sustainable and circular development, creating wealth from within.