The U.S. recycling industry is changing: How you can help

For the Gazette
Published: 9/12/2018 2:31:45 PM

In the past few months, most major U.S. newspapers have published articles about the effect Chinese import changes have had on the recycling industry. Some American communities have made radical changes to their recycling programs, while others appear unaffected. Here is a brief overview of the situation, along with suggestions to help you increase the success of our local recycling programs.

The Pioneer Valley tends to be a recycling role model in Massachusetts. We have high participation rates and a lower-than-average amount of unrecyclable trash (or contamination) in our recycling mix. Our regional recycling processing facility (the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility or MRF) has established a reputation for quality material with low contamination rates, and in the past has had little trouble finding buyers for its processed material. The MRF has weathered several market challenges during its 28 years of operation, and we anticipate that this new challenge will be handled successfully. Nonetheless, the situation is still evolving; we must exercise caution and be prepared for change.

The quality of collected recyclable paper and containers in many American communities is not optimal. When high levels of non-recyclable contaminants (i.e. trash) are present, processing is far more costly. Most people want to be good recyclers, but funding for recycling education is limited and we all have a tendency to put things in the recycling bin that we hope will be recycled (this also known as “wishcycling”). An added challenge is that more communities have adopted a “single stream” recycling system, where recyclable paper and containers are placed in the same bin. Single stream recycling simplifies recycling and saves transportation costs, but tends to produce higher contamination, and lower recycled paper quality (caused by greasy salad dressing spills on office paper).

Some municipalities sell their recyclable material to China. In fact, the Huffington Post reported that until recently, 50 percent of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals had been processed in China. But over a year ago, China started changing its policies and raising standards for low-grade scrap imports. Public health and the environment were the motivators, but economics also play a role, because the Chinese government wants to encourage development of their own domestic recycling market. Why import material when you are one of the most populated countries on Earth?

Imports of some low-grade materials into China are now completely prohibited, while extremely high purity standards have been imposed on other materials. U.S. recycling facilities have slowed down processing to improve purity levels, but this is more expensive and has generated backlogs of unsorted material. Some American sellers cannot find a substitute for the Chinese market, and resulting surpluses have caused commodity prices to drop. We are in uncharted waters, and the industry is still formulating strategies. While Pioneer Valley recycling has experienced a limited impact thus far, the U.S., as a whole, is a long way from finding a solution.

That is where you come in. You can help by making changes in your household, while the U.S. recycling industry works to improve sorting technology and build domestic processing capability. Here’s how:

1) Learn what can be recycled locally, strictly adhere to the guidelines, and patiently educate your family, friends, and neighbors.

2) Reduce your household’s single-use plastic consumption. Reduce and reuse first. For example, use reusable water bottles instead of purchasing bottled water.

3) Encourage your favorite local organizations currently using unrecyclable single-use plastic items to select certifiably recyclable or compostable products. For example, ask a restaurant that uses black plastic to go containers (which are undesirable) if they would consider switching to clear plastic containers.

The Springfield Materials Recycling Facility website offers excellent educational material tailored for its 73 member communities, including downloadable posters for home and school use. Last month, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection launched a new “Recycle Smart” website with a useful statewide recycling guide, FAQs, and a video. Please note that some communities collect additional varieties of containers beyond those found on the statewide list. To ensure the most accurate Pioneer Valley information, refer to the Springfield MRF guides.

Local businesses seeking to improve process may contact Recycling Works, a state-funded program offering waste reduction resources and assistance to businesses and institutions.

Susan Waite is the City of Northampton’s waste reduction coordinator, and a member of the Springfield MRF Advisory Board.

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