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Circular Economy

February 25, 2020

Path to Goal Zero: Bans in Asia Disrupting the North American Waste and Recycling Markets

We must consider the opportunities and impacts of all solutions, technologies and modernize as we learn to lessen the social, environmental and economic impacts. This all requires a new way of thinking and significant behavioral changes.
Dave Gajadhar

The recycling industry and municipal programs are at the tipping point of disruption. Chaos is setting in and citizens are losing confidence in the “system”: Canada recycling programs are broken, California recycling industries are struggling, Eastern States recycling costs are skyrocketing, and U.S. and Canadian cities are killing or scaling back their recycling programs and resources. These disruptions are impacting the waste and recycling industry and could eliminate hundreds of jobs. Costs associated with recycling are escalating, revenue associated with recycling is down.

A Change in 2018

The ban in China, combined with the current mechanisms and programs to manage and handle waste, is the primary cause of recycling material piling up in warehouses and parking lots. Some is ending up in waterways, oceans, landfills and incinerators. In nearly all cases, waste disposal is now more expensive.

Until 2018, China was the largest importer of recycled materials from Canada and the US. In an effort to crackdown on the country’s environmental and pollution impact, the country cut off imports of all but the cleanest and highest-grade materials—imposing a 99.5 percent purity standard that most exporters find all but impossible to meet. This effectively means that all recyclable plastics from municipal recycling programs are now banned and complex plastic packaging with colors, additives, and multilayer, mixed compositions are now more difficult and costly to recycle.

As a result of this ban, the Canadian and U.S. global recycling system has been hurting and numerous North American cities are scrambling to figure a cost-effective approach to manage their recycled goods.

Over the last three decades and for most Americans, recycling is practically second nature. It’s mandated by law for most residential and commercial establishments in numerous cities and failure to comply can result in fines. The problem, though, is that while recycling has become trendy, it is also becoming harder to do so and the costs continue to rise.

Even when a product is recycled, its eventual destination is still a landfill. During the height of the recycling hype, millions of tons of garbage still went to the landfill, and the production of virgin plastics increased at a steady rate alongside recycled products. There was a steady stream of new landfill openings as recycling was hyped to be the next big environmental savior. This ban by China and other Asian countries are pushing businesses and counties to rethink their environmental footprint.

With recyclables no longer having a place to go, many are now ending up in landfills, incinerators and littering land, forest and waterways, as costs are rising and rendering the practice unprofitable in some areas. The recycling industry is facing a crisis as the country struggles to handle the tons of stockpiled recyclable waste it had previously shipped to China and other Asian countries, resulting in tons of plastics and household garbage being burned.

Recycling Transitions

In the U.S., local governments and recycling processors are scrambling to find new markets. Municipalities have curtailed collections or halted their recycling programs entirely, which means that many residents are simply tossing plastic and paper into the trash. Some places in the U.S. and Canada have stopped accepting black plastics and rigid plastics like disposable cups while others are now burning the bulk of their recyclables at waste-to-energy plants, which is now raising concerns about energy consumption, ash and air pollution.

Cities with long-standing recycling collection programs have been especially hard hit. North American small town and rural recycling operations have been hit the hardest. While most continue to operate, rising costs and falling incomes are forcing some to shut down, stop curbside pickup or stop accepting plastics. These actions are forcing residents to travel (not emission free) to drop off points in far away locations, if they want to recycle. The impact is that people are tossing their recyclables in the trash instead.

Although, larger cities are finding alternative paths to expand their operations to process higher-quality and more marketable materials, many have had to make changes including dropping some harder-to-recycle materials from their programs and asking residents to discard those items in their household garbage.

Bracing for Change

Consumers and industry alike will need to brace for big changes. As we transition to more effective means of waste mitigation and reuse, other short-term options are beginning to emerge, material recovery facilities are expanding operations, upgrading equipment, and adding workers to improve sorting and reduce contamination so that the materials are acceptable to more discerning buyers.

Additionally, in order to force change, some jurisdictions are planning to tax manufacturers and charge consumers environmental levies to curb the problem. These actions are punitive and will not change behaviors and it will be a slow process to realize desired outcomes.

Continuous Education

Moving beyond “greenwashing” and “wishcycling”—the assumption that everything in the blue bin gets recycled is not true. Consumers will need to change their purchase practices, avoiding single-use containers and packaging that have no recycling value. 

Continuous education on waste mitigation and reuse is critical to help people consistently identify potential waste streams (taxing waste creators will not change habits, and it hurts the vulnerable). For example, ask the question: what are the possible waste streams that an incident may generate in your community, considering its industrial, agricultural, residential and commercial aspects?

We can also educate tenants to reduce waste, which for most buildings appears to be mission impossible and in the minds of senior government officials, they believe only regulations can make tenants in multiplexes and high rises act. People can change their attitudes about the environment once they have a better understanding of the problems and the eco-friendly options available.

A critical component in any waste management program is public awareness and participation, in addition to appropriate legislation, strong technical support, and adequate funding. Waste is the result of human activities and everyone needs to have a proper understanding of waste management issues, without which the success of even the best-conceived waste management plan becomes questionable.

Packaging Responsibility

Industries that produce packaging and use excess packaging for their products will need to be held responsible for their lifecycle impacts, possibly in the form of legislative mandates. In some regions, legislation is being considered to mandate producers be responsible for packaging. Legislation being considered in the Washington State House of Representatives would require “a producer of plastic packaging” to participate in a stewardship organization by 2022 or quit using packaging made in whole or in part from plastics. EPR legislation for packaging is or will be considered in at least California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont. A federal bill was also released last month that would make plastic producers responsible for collection and recycling of materials, put a moratorium on new plastic facilities, and require nationwide container deposits.

People need to stop looking at recycling as a primary solution to our waste problem. A focus on recycling also shifts the burden to consumers, while ignoring other avenues of sustainability, such as design, material handling, production and re-use.

The transformational question before policymakers is ‘who should be responsible?’ Should we allow manufacturers to maintain the status quo because they profit from continuing to buy cheap virgin materials with no disposal obligations and downloading the cost to the end-user or taxpayer? The costs of reuse and repurpose should be distributed across the participant supply chain to be effective and economical.

Reducing Our Rate of Consumption

In the recycling industry, strong markets remain for many goods, such as paper, cardboard and aluminum. However, there is a growing volume of plastics, mixed plastics, contaminated mixed waste material, construction material and other valuable waste. The issue is we have no standard mechanisms for evaluating excess material and excess material quality. This is changing, as companies are in the process of validating and testing excess material valuation models across the supply and participant chain to encourage and enable monetization of excess material. Reducing our rate on consumption and the amount of waste we generate is the most important thing we can do.

The recycling crisis triggered by China’s ban has an upside—we are now forced to design, reuse and repurpose into our products at conception. What happens to material that is at the end of life? Is it recycled or sent to landfills? What percentage is really recycled? The ideal process for reuse and repurpose should not be left to the end-user, it must be part of the original design and end of life must now be a driving design factor.

Everything is possible, and we must consider the opportunities and impacts of all solutions, technologies and modernize as we learn to lessen the social, environmental and economic impacts. This all requires a new way of thinking and significant behavioral changes.

Dave Gajadhar is an Advisor, Speaker, Educator, and an Advocate for Human prosperity and resource optimization at Resultant Group (Edmonton, AB), business modernization, resource optimization and transition advisors. He can be reached at (780) 483-4800, e-mail Dgajadgar@ResultantGroup.com or on Twitter: @dgajadar

ResultantGroup and Companies for Zero Waste hosts the premier forum for sustainability leaders and practitioners—from the business world, government agencies, NGOs and investors to connect and explore emerging trends to move towards zero waste goals, pressing challenges and promising opportunities shaping business amid a world of climate change, resource constraints and unprecedented stakeholder pressures.

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