Recycling May be Down, But Don’t Count it Out Yet

China’s ban on imported recyclables has had a real impact, but we shouldn’t give up on North America’s recycling system.

Stacks of recycling materials, including paper and cardboard, are bundled together in a recycling facility.
Photo by Bas Emmen via Unsplash

I recently visited a recycling facility outside Vancouver, to see what happens to my blue bin’s contents after a truck whisks them away. Recycling is widespread in North America, but a recent cycle of news stories has painted a bleak future for the industry.

Is this the end of recycling?” wondered an Atlantic headline in March. The New York Times and Vox ran stories of recycling centres shutting down, climbing fees, and cancelled programs, all due to a new Chinese policy severely restricting imports of recyclables. Other reports told of paper and plastic piling up in warehouses from Massachusetts to Alberta. Most disturbing were revelations that the Pepsi cans and shoeboxes we dutifully sorted might not be recycled at all. It seemed like it was time to give up on recycling.

Have reports of recycling’s demise been greatly exaggerated?

But the reality, as I found at that facility, is a lot messier. Tiny grit floated through the air; bleeping tractors moved massive bales of cardboard; teams of workers in white hard hats and face masks plucked plastic bags from conveyor belts, while a two-storey sorting machine whirred loudly in the background, processing hundreds of tonnes of plastic, glass, and paper each day. In short: recycling was happening. Have reports of recycling’s demise been greatly exaggerated?

Let’s back up to a common misunderstanding: recycling’s never been just a public service, it’s a business. Local government might set rules or distribute collection calendars, but there’s almost always a company handling the collection, sorting, and sale of recyclables to buyers around the world.

This business hasn’t been doing so hot for some time now. Recycling’s woes include changing consumer behaviour and harder-to-recycling hybrid packaging. But the bottom line is money, and the recycling business is making less of it. In 2015 — a full three years before China’s ban — David Steiner, then-CEO of trash-hauling giant Waste Management, told Fortune that recycling’s free-falling profits heralded a crisis in the industry’s future.

The ban clarified another misconception North Americans had about recycling: where it happens. Most communities’ waste isn’t recycled locally, or even in the same country. The facility I visited is a middleman: an important one, doing the complicated and expensive job of sorting what we throw in the blue bin, but a middleman nonetheless. All that baled and sorted material is sold to buyers who turn used materials into something new.

A full three years before China’s ban, recycling’s free-falling profits heralded a crisis in the industry’s future.

For decades, China was the biggest buyer for most of the world’s recycling, importing a staggering 72% of all plastic waste since 1992. In 2016, that meant 7.35 million metric tonnes of plastic recycling. But in January 2018, China introduced a new import policy that banned yang laji, or “foreign garbage,” escalating the challenges facing the recycling industry.

The National Sword — easily the most dramatic name for an import policy ever — banned the import of two dozen categories of scrap material. A few months later, a new contamination standard came into effect, allowing no more than 0.5% on recycling imports — a nearly impossible standard to meet, according to insiders. But this change doesn’t necessarily mean your recyclables are going directly to landfill.

“To say recycling is being cancelled across the country is not true,” says Cole Rosengren, the senior editor of Waste Dive, a waste-management industry publication tracking the National Sword’s impact across all 50 American states. “Granted, there are definitely municipalities that have canceled programs. There are many others that have reduced what they take in their programs, and it’s getting harder to operate municipal programs. But by and large things are still running.”

Even if you personally haven’t felt the effects of China’s National Sword, you can see it in recycling tips warning about “wishcycling” and contamination. Wishcycling is when we put a pizza box in the blue bin because we feel it should be recyclable, not because it is. Contamination is when the cheese on that pizza box fouls an otherwise clean bale of cardboard, making it unusable at the paper mill. Wishcycling and contamination gum up sorting machines, taint properly sorted materials, create more waste, and drive up costs. All this imperfect recycling has also led to China’s ban.

Consumers get a lot of blame for China’s new policy, but the recycling industry should share it.

Consumers get a lot of blame for China’s new policy, but the recycling industry should share it. Especially one company: Waste Management (WM). The big cheese of the disposal world, WM brings in billions every quarter. It’s not only in the business of recycling, but landfills, too. When its recycling centres shutter, Waste Management still profits, because landfills employ fewer people and make more money than recycling.

In 2001, WM pioneered single-stream recycling: no more sorting paper, plastic, glass, and metal into separate bins. This new method was popular, and recycling rates increased by up to 50%, according to WM. But so did wishcycling and contamination. Between the National Sword, the failures of single-stream collection, and a waste disposal industry that profits more from landfills than recycling, it’s no surprise some devoted recyclers are asking: what is the point?

At Waste Dive, Rosengren believes the crisis is rooted in fundamental questions that haven’t been answered. “How much should [recycling] cost? Who gets to set those terms of what we want to recycle and how we do it? That is all very complicated and very unresolved,” he says. Another unresolved question is who should pay for recycling: consumers, taxpayers, or the businesses that produce packaging (a system known as extended producer responsibility, or EPR).

In the future, Rosengren expects to see more disruption as recycling revenues shrink and private haulers renegotiate contracts with communities. When cities can’t afford increased costs, they might opt for incineration instead, like in Philadelphia, where a re-negotiated contract led to news that the city’s recycling is going to a nearby incinerator.

Interestingly, Chinese companies are investing in North American recycling by purchasing paper-processing plants.

Incineration may be pitched as the greener-sounding “waste-to-energy,” but nearby communities don’t appreciate bearing the environmental and health costs. Zero-waste advocates also point out that incineration encourages the throwaway mindset that has led to the mess we find ourselves in today.

One positive trend Rosengren sees is a move to create more domestic markets for recyclable material. That means less recycling offloaded to poor countries struggling to control their own waste. Interestingly, Chinese companies are investing in North American recycling by purchasing paper-processing plants.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for the messy issues around waste; each place must sort out its own future. Out of landfill space, New York City aims to send nothing to the dump by 2030. (Insiders say that will require at least some incineration.) The European Union passed a ban on a dozen single-use plastics from cutlery to stir sticks. That same law legislated that cigarette and fishing line companies cover cleanup costs, and that plastic bottles contain 30% recycled content by 2030. Six US states, including Florida, Tennessee, and New Jersey, have proposed bottle deposit legislation in the last year. And pay-as-you-throw programs used in thousands of communities charge for every landfill-bound bag — usually by selling specific bags or tags that are required for pickup.

In British Columbia, items in the blue bin are still recycled, as long as we follow the rules. David Lefebvre, the director of public affairs at the non-profit Recycle BC, explained in an interview where the province’s recyclables end up. Not far from the recycling facility I visited, plastic containers are melted down and resold as pellets. Metal containers from BC are converted into aluminum cans or sheet metal at factories across North America. Our paper is sold overseas to India and across Asia, where it’s remade into boxes or egg cartons.

“There are more stringent restrictions when it comes to what can and can’t be sent overseas, ” says Lefebvre. “But in British Columbia we’ve been able to find end markets for all the material we’re collecting.”

Despite the imperfect compromise that is recycling, it’s a decades-old industry with developed infrastructure and supply chains around the world. It employs three quarters of a million people in the US alone, provides manufacturing with raw material, and conserves energy.

Plastic production is projected to double in the next 20 years, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular-economy think tank. Without recycling, so much more waste will be shovelled into the earth or the ocean. The latest round of fear-mongering about recycling’s future undercuts confidence in a battered industry, but it also highlights the lack of mainstream alternatives. In this time of disruption, we need more tools in our toolbox, not fewer.

The fear-mongering about recycling’s future undercuts confidence in a battered industry, but it also highlights the lack of mainstream alternatives.

A few months before my visit to the recycling facility, I went to the Vancouver Landfill. It stretches across valleys and hills, mottled waste as far as the eye can see. The smell of rot was so thick in my nose that I quickly stopped smelling it. Underfoot was a crunchy mash of plastic, decomposing food, glass and metal. It was strangely cathartic to confront the stinky, hulking mass of waste that is swept out of our lives each and every week. If we ever want a reminder of why we shouldn’t dump recycling yet, the landfill is never too far away.

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