It is no secret that the U.S. generates more waste than any other country per capita. The average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash every single day and as a nation of nearly 325 million people, the U.S. produces more than 700,000 tons of garbage daily — enough to fill around 60,000 garbage trucks.

It’s also apparent that the U.S. lags far behind other countries in the world when it comes to recycling waste. According to the U.S. EPA, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash in 2013 and recycled (including composting) about 87 million tons of material—equivalent to a 34.3 percent recycling rate.

That is a lot of material that’s sorted, packaged, and sent to holding areas ready for shipment to processing facilities where it is sorted again, shredded, melted and manipulated into new products.

What Role Does China Play in the Recycling World??

The China market accounts for almost 40 percent of all U.S. recycling export activity. In 2016, China imported more than 17 million tons of high quality, specification grade recyclables – that’s more than $5.6 billion worth of paper, plastics, metals and more.

While those numbers seem impressive, the amount of recycled material being imported by China has, for the last five years, been steadily decreasing on an annual basis.

In 2012, China put up a virtual “Green Fence” in an effort to reduce pollution. The policy bans the import of all but the cleanest, most tightly organized bales of reusable rubbish — and bars some types altogether. While American’s persistently work towards creating cleaner recycled products  — China is no longer accepting plastic categories #3 through #7.

Before the Green Fence, all plastics were brought into the country. The plastic recyclers would separate and use grades #1 and #2, and the other plastics would be sent to a China landfill. The different grades of plastic have different melting points and therefore require different processes. Grades #1 and #2 have similar melting points, are the easiest to melt, and use as a resin for new plastic products.

Even though the vast majority of what’s used in plastic packaging still comes from prime resin, it can be supplemented by less costly resin from recycled plastics to make the finished product cheaper. In countries such as the U.S., with a high degree of worry about the environment, being able to say that recycled plastics were used to make a product counts as valuable marketing as well.

In addition to the Green Fence, China is also talking about initiating a new campaign called “National Sword 2017” that will target industrial waste, electronic scrap, and put an even tighter rein on plastics. The new campaign will also target “gangs and well-organized operations acting illegally” and smuggling illegal recycled products into China.

Meanwhile, the government of India’s ban on imports of solid plastic waste is resulting in thousands of workers in both countries finding themselves unemployed.

With China cutting back on the amount and types of plastic scrap being imported, other countries are picking up the slack. Plastics exporters are diverting their attention to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam as some of the end-user manufacturers have relocated their production bases to these countries.

China Cracking Down on Imports

Like plastic waste, China’s Green Fence and the new National Sword 2017 policies are also having a devastating impact on the importation of waste paper. For example, in September 2016, nearly 670 tons of waste paper from the US were found to include prohibited PVC infusion bags and other medical waste. Shipments were detained and rejected by Chinese customs officials. Also, on Oct. 20, 2016, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection began inspecting over 20 provinces, cracking down on paper and cardboard projects that violated the law—specifically the significant pollution created during production.

China is responsible for importing 55 percent of the world’s paper and cardboard waste, which in turn forms a critical component of China’s economic ecosystem. Paper waste has become highly valued as a resource.

Be that as it may, the need to import paper and cardboard waste is decreasing as the Chinese people consume more goods. From 2000 to 2010, the size of the Chinese economy more than doubled, and consumption grew from around $650 billion to almost $1.4 trillion.

China’s Singles Day, on November 11th every year, is the world’s biggest shopping day. Last year, shoppers spent $1.5 billion on eCommerce in just 7 minutes online, and the National Post Office reported more than 350 million packages delivered. It is easy to see, with that much paper and cardboard waste generated domestically, that the need to import waste from other countries is decreasing.

As a result, according to Resource Recycling, older newsprint (ONP) prices have fallen by 40 percent, and old corrugated containers (OCC) prices dropped 10 percent.

In 2016, the price of plastic scrap dropped 5.1 percent from 2015. Though part of that price drop can be connected to the drop in the price of crude oil, which is used to make prime resin.

Most of China’s Green Fence program is focused on only importing usable plastics and enforcing the 1.5 per cent maximum contamination limit (food scraps and excessive moisture). It also targets smuggling and illegal operations. However, due to increased security and inspections at the docks, nonferrous scrap recyclers and secondary metals producers are negatively affected by the port slowdowns and the customs declaration process — costing both time and money.

How This Affects the U.S.

The downfall to all of this scrutiny is the fact that the U.S. and other nations that sell recycled materials to China must be more conscientious in sorting the type of material that will be accepted. This also means that much more scrap not suited for shipment to China must be disposed of domestically.

Many recyclers have invested in upgrading their facilities with high quality automated sorting equipment, such as the vibrating screens, high stroke feeders and air classifiers from companies like General Kinematics. With this effort to purify recycled products more efficiently, the costs of processing recyclables has decreased due to minimized labor requirements and improved material quality

As always, education is key. The U.S. EPA has created a sustainable materials management roadmap to 2020 stating that education and stronger public and private partnerships are required to advance recycling, reuse and waste reduction.

U.S. Companies are Stepping Up

In the U.S. there are 17 companies that purchase post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles from recycling facilities and produce clean flake or pellet resins for the manufacturing of new plastic bottles and products. PET is the most common thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family and is used in fibers for clothing, containers for liquids and foods, thermoforming for manufacturing, and in combination with glass fiber for engineering resins. Yet, the plastic bottle waste and the demand for new bottles and plastic packaging far exceeds the combined capacity of these few plants processing capabilities.

The latest factory to be built was CarbonLite, who in 2012 opened a 220,000-sq.-ft. plant in Riverside, California. They are making a small dent in the waste stream by processing more than two billion recycled plastic bottles a year and manufacturing them into new food grade bottles.

In 2015, Republic Services opened its Las Vegas facility, the largest recycling sorting facility in the U.S. with the capacity to process 70 tons of recyclable material per hour.

Finding a buyer for all of that recycled waste is now the biggest problem they face.

To learn more about General Kinematics’ sorting equipment and how we are continually working to improve our customer’s’ processes, contact us today!

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