China’s Ban on Trash Equals a US Opportunity

by | May 30, 2018


Not too many people outside the waste management industry are aware that China decided to stop recycling “foreign garbage,” creating a big impact on USA’s export of waste to that country.

The move actually makes sense. China has found imported materials (i.e., plastic and paper fiber) have an unacceptable and high level of contamination to make their recycling operations economically viable.

What’s more surprising is that the US waste industry seems to be up in arms. After all, China has been our dump yard for years. How dare China stop taking our trash!

Under the pretense of recycling products and avoiding landfilling practices, we have been exporting trash for many years. Waste is also moved in the US between states often impacting communities that have no connection to its origin.

In a letter to the US Vice President, the National Waste & Recycling Association asked him to work and promote the lifting of the ban given its potential to shake public confidence in recycling, the lack of other markets for these materials which negatively impact their value and the possible loss of tens of thousands of jobs. Granted, these are all very important issues.

As challenging as this may be, the Chinese ban on trash should be seen as an opportunity.

There are a number of issues at stake here:

We don’t recycle well – We can’t blame the Chinese for rejecting a bad product. If recycling materials are tainted, it is because, as a community, we mostly don’t recycle well. Many waste management operations in the US have been suffering because they are unable to successfully separate recyclable from non-recyclable materials. As a result, material recovery facilities (or MRFs) have to significantly invest in technology that ‘outsmarts’ the consumer, identifies and separates non-recyclable materials from the commingled waste stream, and achieves a cleaner recycled product stream. ??Poor recycling operations are partly the result of poorly designed recycling programs. A key here is that people are confused about what to put in what waste bin. Labeling and information about recycling practices are extremely inconsistent from site to site. This can easily be improved with uniform practices across cities and states. Here is where NWRA could make a significant contribution developing a consistent way for all to participate more in the recycling effort with more education and policy uniformity (a.k.a. number/type/color of waste bins and labeling) across the US. The KISS method would work great here.

Landfilling is too cheap – The wide availability of land in the US has long favored landfilling practices for waste disposal over recycling. Reportedly, the Chinese ban is responsible for larger volumes of waste bound for landfills. This should decrease landfill capacity, increase cost both for landfill operators and us, the producers of waste.

Landfilling practices must end – They are environmentally harmful. Today, there are technologies available and commercially viable to extract energy from waste, as a renewable resource, or convert waste to valuable renewable products. This is another way to recycle carbon and avoid significant greenhouse gas emissions from landfills.

WTE NIMBY – Or another reason to ship waste elsewhere. Nobody wants a waste management operation in their backyard. It’s easier to ship it somewhere else.

This is utter nonsense. There are many waste-to-energy (WTE) and material recovery facilities in industrial areas that blend with local infrastructure. The most exciting one in Denmark with (yes!) a ski slope. Or this one in Austria. Granted, these two examples are not the kind that blends with the environment but they can elicit interest in a topic that everyone pretends to ignore.

Converting waste into renewable electricity, fuels or other products is a viable and sustainable way to address our mounting trash problem while creating thousands of well-paid jobs.

Carbon hasn’t been priced into our lives the way it should be – Pricing carbon on emissions (and externalities) will increase the cost to transport waste. It will make the commodity more expensive, and less waste will be disposed of. Plastics will also become more expensive increasing incentives to recycle them locally.

The Chinese ban on waste provides a way for the United States to re-calibrate our priorities. This is a unique opportunity to implement long due policies that drive increased recycling and investment in a much-needed waste management infrastructure that is sustainable.

By Adrian Tylim, a sustainability specialist focusing on developing Corporate Sustainability Programs for large organizations. He also teaches sustainability at two universities in California.

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