When China announced their ‘National Sword’ program in 2017, not many people took them seriously. National Sword is a Chinese government initiative to target and eliminate environmental contamination. The plan included a massive ban on importing recycling from abroad
China imports about 40 million tons of waste paper, plastic and metals from the United States alone, which feeds their industrial operations. Since sortation in their country is largely done manually, recycling jobs employ a huge number of people in their workforce. The finished recycled products largely go right back into the production of new plastics, metals and paper-goods that get exported to countries like ours on the very same overseas containers that we used to ship the scrap to them in the first place.
So why would China decimate their economy by cutting off their prime sources of recycling, affecting employment, and disrupting the supply-demand balance?
You see, when designing community recycling programs here in the USA, nobody believed you were committed or smart enough to follow complicated directions. Easy instructions were the key to participation in the programs. Broad guidelines were posted, for example; “Acceptable Materials: plastics #1-7, mixed paper, glass bottles, Tin Aluminum and Steel cans”. Nobody told you that “plastics #3-7 are generally NOT recycled and wind up in the trash”, or that “your paper that has a coating on it will likely cause problems”. The strategy for the last two decades has been to avoid publicizing anything that might discourage people from recycling. Collection programs take everything that even remotely resembles and requires processors to sort out the unacceptable contaminants down the line. Therefore, things like plastic bags, yogurt containers, light bulbs, greasy pizza boxes and a variety of other things that the general population wished were acceptable recycling wind up contaminating the recycling stream. The newly coined term for this is “wish-cycling”.
The evolving technology for sorting recycling and removing contamination is fascinating. It’s incredible how efficiently the industrial sortation equipment separates different grades of recyclable items. It’s amazing to see glass and plastic being sorted by grade and color all by machine, steel and non-ferris metals separated without the touch of a human being. Even with millions of dollars of equipment and dozens of workers on a sort line, the contamination from poorly educated wish-cyclers is too great, and processors are unable to provide a marketable, contaminant free product.
China has taken our substandard recyclables for decades. Their efforts to control damage to their environment by setting a high threshold for the purity of the commodities import is to be applauded. It has, however, set our markets into a dramatic downward spiral. Market prices are 50% lower than a year ago, making many commodities more expensive to process than simply trashing them. Supply for recyclable materials has far outpaced demand, warehouses are filled up and there is nobody is buying. Some of this is being landfill, and communities all over are redefining acceptable materials or canceling recycling programs altogether. Whereas it’s easy blame China for this, I feel the blame and the solution lies with us.
We need to better educate ourselves and clean up our act. By avoiding wish-cycling and getting our processing plants to slow down just enough to provide a cleaner product, we can once again open world markets to recyclable commodities. With time and a better quality of product, there is no reason that our recycling markets should not rebound, once again allowing us to benefit our environment and our economy.
Need more value out of your waste program?
Marshall Staiman, LEED Green Associate
President at Talismark
The author is an owner at Talismark, a national waste and recycling outsource management company that services retail and commercial businesses throughout the United States. He is Harvard Business School case study participant and lecturer, he’s been featured in Forbes magazine, and has placed on Inc. 500/5000 list of fastest growing companies two years running.
Talismark is a Waste Solutions Management Company that custom designs waste management programs to champion sustainability and compliance with measurable results. Creating a customer experience that captures value, reduces cost, and saves resources!