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Think Your Plastic Is Being Recycled? Think Again.

Recycling companies have largely stayed away from recycling plastic and most of it has been shipped to China -- but that's about to change.
 
 
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Halfway across the Pacific, a message of plastic pollution in a bottle reminding us that most of the pollution in the ocean comes from our everyday lives. (Stiv Wilson)
Photo Credit: Stiv Wilson

 
 
 
 

Think those plastic items you carefully separate from the rest of your trash are being responsibly recycled? Think again. U.S. recycling companies have largely stayed away from recycling plastic and most of it has been shipped to China where it can be processed cheaper. Not anymore. This year China announced a Green Fence Policy, prohibiting much of the plastic recycling they  once imported:

For many environmentally conscious Americans, there’s a deep satisfaction to chucking anything and everything plasticky into the recycling bin—from shampoo bottles to butter tubs—the types of plastics in the plastic categories #3 through #7. Little do they know that, even if their local trash collector says it recycles that waste, they might as well be chucking those plastics in the trash bin.

“[Plastics] 3-7 are absolutely going to a landfill—[China's] not taking that any more… because of Green Fence,” David Kaplan, CEO of Maine Plastics, a post-industrial recycler, tells Quartz. “This will continue until we can do it in the United States economically.”

U.S. recyclers are scrambling to come up with a solution now that China is drastically cutting back on their top  import from the U.S.:

China's demand for low-cost recycled raw materials has meant waste shipments from Europe, the US, Japan and Hong Kong have arrived thick and fast, with scrap becoming the top US export to China by value ($11.3bn) in 2011.

China controls a large portion of the recycling market, importing about 70% of the world's 500m tonnes of electronic waste and 12m tonnes of plastic waste each year. Sudden Chinese policy changes therefore have a significant impact on the global recycling trade, which puts pressure on western countries to reconsider their reliance on the cost-effective practice of exporting waste, a habit that's reinforced by a lack of domestic recycling infrastructure and a lower demand for secondary raw materials.

China's Green Fence policy just might spur the  U.S. government and recyclers into much-needed innovation:

Historically, higher labor costs and environmental safety standards made processing scrap into raw materials much more expensive in the US than in China. So the US never developed much capacity or technology to sort and process harder-to-break down plastics like #3 through #7.

Green Fence might be a chance to change that, says Mike Biddle, CEO of California-based recycling company MBA Polymers. “China’s Green Fence offers a real opportunity to the US government and recycling industry to step up its efforts on recycling and catalyze a strong domestic recycling market in the US,” Biddle said at a recent webinar on Green Fence.

Some U.S. recycling companies are  applauding the news:

The policy also has leveled the playing field by allowing large-scale companies that have invested additional money in pollution control and recycling services to operate at a more equal and fair-cost level, according to Kathy Xuan, CEO of full-service recycler Parc Corp. of Romeoville, Ill.

With China taking a harder look at the plastic waste it imports, U.S.-based recyclers are looking for opportunities in the changing global market.

Parc has doubled production in the last six months, Xuan said in a July 2 webinar hosted by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. of Washington.

The opportunity for big change (and big profits) is there. Let's hope the U.S. government and recycling companies don't throw away the opportunity to lead the way.

 
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