Sorting is fast and furious at the Rutland MRF. Photos by CB Hall.
by CB Hall Vermont Business Magazine The handling of Vermont's recyclable wastes has long been a more or less straightforward matter, of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind variety, but that's changing. China, which had been receiving about a third of all recyclables exported from the United States, announced last July that it would stop accepting 24 materials that have long been among those exports – including key components of the global trade in recyclables.
The materials banned included post-consumer streams of plastic and mixed paper – common household wastes, in other words. For the materials it continues, at least in theory, to accept, China has also prohibited contamination rates greater than 0.5 percent.
In other words, a bale of industrial scrap plastic, for example, can contain only 0.5 percent by weight of anything else, including other recyclable materials.
Finally, the Asian nation is issuing smaller and smaller quotas on the volumes of recyclables that its mills can import. The long-term upshot of the measures is that China will accept virtually no wastes.
Adina Renee Adler, senior director for government relations and international affairs at the DC-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), noted that the Chinese door, which had still been open a crack, slammed shut altogether on May 4, when the Beijing government suspended the US operations of CCIC, a quasi-government agency that performs pre-shipment inspections of wastes destined for China from points around the world. The suspension is to last for one month.
As a result, Adler said in a May 17 interview, "We have no material moving to China at the moment."
The suspension only applied to the United States and came in the midst of the ongoing tit-for-tat afflicting trade relations between the two countries.
"I can't help but be suspicious of the timing," Adler said.
Joe Soulia, general manager of Casella's material recovery facility in Rutland.
Asked if the series of measures taken by China has managers at material recovery facilities (MRFs) like his scratching their heads, Joe Fusco, vice president of Rutland-based Casella Waste Systems, said, "'Scratching our heads' is too calm a phrase. We're pumping our arms and running at full tilt to deal with this challenge."
The contamination standard, he noted, is "beyond the capacity of any technology to achieve." At Casella, the best achievable contamination rate in the 3-5% range, he estimated, "and that's with us working really hard at it."
"You can understand why China would do this," he continued. "They were winding up with the world's garbage on their doorstep."
So Casella and other MRFs, who sort and bale the materials and then ship them to plants that do the actual recycling are scrambling for alternatives. The main materials concerned are paper and plastics. Scrap metal, glass and aluminum cans are easier to deal with, since adequate facilities for recycling them already exist in the United States. For the paper and plastics, the alternatives include India, Vietnam, and an inadequate number of recyclers in North America, and do not suffice to replace the missing Chinese capacity. As a result, the materials have flooded the recyclables market.
Prices for what China once accepted have dropped "severely," Fusco said, "and shipping prices to Vietnam and India have doubled. This is the stuff you learn in high school – about supply and demand. You've got a glut of products chasing smaller and smaller markets, and the economics on this side are not good."
And paper and plastics represent huge volumes of waste. In 2014, the United States generated 67 million tons of paper wastes and 34 million tons of plastic wastes, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Vermonters rid themselves of just over 100,000 tons of paper and more than 47,000 tons of plastic in 2011, the most recent year for which data were available, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
According to ISRI, China accepted 31% of all U.S. scrap exports in 2017. That same year, the Journal of Commerce reports, China imported about 70% of US exports of the waste materials that the Asian country has now banned.
Several factors gave rise to the Chinese dominance. Demand for recycled materials was high in China, shipping was cheap, and the United States had little industrial capacity for the actual recycling, according to Kate O'Neill, associate professor of global environmental politics at the University of California at Berkeley, speaking in a recent interview on the "Here and Now" radio program.
The history of the United States' recycling habits reflects the law of unintended consequences. Having enjoyed the luxury of exporting its wastes to a receptive market across the Pacific, and now having that market evaporate, the United States finds itself, so to speak, holding the bags – paper and plastic.
And for all the difficulties Vermont MRFs like Casella's are confronting, the conundrum is even worse on the West Coast, where trans-Pacific ships, having emptied Chinese-made consumer wares at the region's ports, long served as convenient receptacles for recyclables for back-hauling to China.
Now, the disposal of such materials at landfills in Oregon and Washington are generating no shortage of news stories, dimming that region's cherished aura of greenness.
Vermont and other eastern states never had it quite that easy in disposing of recyclables. Still, Fusco said, the situation "is causing a severe disruption to recycling globally," Vermont very much included.
Asked if Casella had been stockpiling any recyclables for lack of a market, he said, "No, material is still moving, but the price is so much less than it was before."
Diversion of recyclables to any landfill, he noted, would require a change in state law.
"Right now it's a buyer's market for facilities that take in paper," Josh Kelly, who heads DEC's Materials Management Section, told VBM. "It's going to take a while for this to ease. Markets tend to follow cycles. This happens to be one of the worst drops in some time – in part because people got so dependent on China."
"The overall value of the recycling stream is probably down 60 to 65 percent over the last 12 months," Fusco estimated. "It's a challenge. We're fortunate enough to have put into place some years ago a structure for charging for recycling, so that when markets are poor, people pay a little more. We tried to remove the volatility from recycling. But this is unprecedented."
He said it was too early to tell whether Casella was now losing money on recyclables. He added, however, that India and Vietnam are becoming saturated with what China used to take, suggesting that prices for the wastes in question may continue to fall.
Michele Morris, CSWD courtesy photo.
Michele Morris, director of outreach and communications at the Chittenden Solid Waste District in Williston, stressed that plastics have been less of a problem than mixed paper. The latter fetched $75 a ton last August; recently Casella, which operates the Williston facility as it does the one in Rutland, paid $57 a ton to ship mixed paper to a New Jersey waste handler, she said.
The most obvious solution is for the United States to deal with its own garbage as it once did.
But on closer examination that scenario seems simplistic. It worked when recycling was limited to baling up one's newspapers for "paper drives," or when the federal government could galvanize the populace into conserving resources in order to win World War II, but it's a different world today.
Asked if domestic entrepreneurs might exploit the closing of the Chinese door as an opportunity for expanding the actual recycling stateside, Fusco said, "You would need a rejuvenated manufacturing sector in the US. The reason [the waste] goes overseas to China and India and Vietnam, for better or worse, is because they've become the global neighborhood for manufacturing."
Using paper as example, he said, "There'd need to be a lot more paper mills in the country, and they've all disappeared, especially form the Northeast."
Potential exists for industrial solutions in Vermont or elsewhere in the states, Kelly said, but "it's a matter of scale. If you own a blast furnace for melting steel, that furnace needs to be running 24 hours a day to make it cost-effective." Still, he said, "We need to seek and develop more domestic markets for these materials."
Morris concurred. "Many folks are saying that this a correction that we needed," she said.
To date, the Chinese ban has thus spawned only a few new industrial initiatives in the United States.
One Chinese recycler is opening a new plant in South Carolina to reclaim materials from food and beverage cartons, while a second Chinese player is launching a plastics shredding facility in Alabama as a sort of stopover on the material's global itinerary.
One Canadian firm, BoMET Polymer, has launched a new operation in Ontario that concentrates on reclamation of plastics in electronic hardware such as keyboards.
VBM found only one Vermont business that might be expanding operations in reaction to the Chinese ban – WestRock, whose Missisquoi Mill in Sheldon Springs recycles paper.
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In an April 27 earnings call, Atlanta-based WestRock's CEO, Steve Voorhees, said, "It's just hard to see where prices are going… So we're going to stay flexible and be able to adapt where the market goes." WestRock did not return calls seeking comment.
While MRFs are being put to the test financially as the price of the wastes they sell drops, it did not appear that companies that use recycled materials – at the other end of the reclamation pipeline – were reaping much benefit from those price decreases.
Martin Wolf, director of sustainability and authenticity at Burlington's Seventh Generation, which uses large amounts of recycled paper fiber and plastics, described prices for his company's raw materials as generally stable.
Compounding the difficulties in recycling is the readiness of marketers and manufacturers to spring new products on the market with little thought to the recyclability of the materials involved.
Packaging can include novel laminates or combinations of materials whose reclamation is not a simple matter, and even in the most environmentally correct household the challenges of identifying and classifying packaging material can mean it winds up, by one route or another, in a landfill (see sidebar on how to recycle).
And while the impetus for businesses to act and look green is relentless, the reactions to packaging innovations that are just as relentless can be awkward.
Case in point: Keurig Green Mountain's K-Cups. The Waterbury-based company began a program to take back the single-service coffee pods in 2011. The coffee, 75% of the pod by weight, went into compost, but the rest of the cup – including plastic and that flimsy aluminum one sees in much packaging – was "turned into renewable energy," in the words of the program's website.
In other words, the plastic and aluminum were incinerated at a so-called energy-from-waste plant.
Only more recently has the company reportedly found a more appealing solution, by which the plastic winds up in plastic pallets and the aluminum is used in new cans.
Keurig, which has also been working to develop a compostable K-Cup, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment for this article.
A worker sorts plastic moving on a conveyor at Casella's material recovery facility Rutland.
Plastic shopping bags offer another example of the obstacles to effective recycling. While the base material, polyethylene, can be reclaimed, the bags must be kept separate from other material, DEC's Kelly noted, since they wrap themselves around discs in machinery used to separate different types of recyclables, making it necessary to shut the machinery down and unravel the obstructions.
Fusco said that the discarded bags also often contain plenty of food residue and other "prohibitives" – contaminants, in the industry's parlance.
And they're ubiquitous: Supermarket checkout clerks instinctively reach for the flimsy bags to package grocery purchases, the polyethylene takes centuries to biodegrade, and the northeast Pacific Ocean has acquired dubious distinction for accommodating the bags, or fragments of them, in the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which by one recent estimate contains 79,000 tons of various plastics swirling around in a gyre twice as large as Texas.
All of which may mean that the responsibility ultimately falls to the lifestyle choices we make as a society, rather than industrial solutions that can come and go as haphazardly as anything else in an economy that resists central planning.
At Casella's plant just west of Rutland's downtown, Fusco and general manager Joe Soulia show VBM what an MRF does: Putting unsorted recyclables through a noisy succession of hoppers and conveyor-driven sorting lines to cull plastics, paper, aluminum and other salvageable materials from what cannot be salvaged – and there's more than enough of that to attest to Fusco's comment on the impossibility of reducing contaminants to the level the Chinese now demand.
At one sorting line, quick-fingered workers fling various plastics from a conveyor belt into waiting hoppers. In less than a minute's time, as the trash flows by, Soulia and Fusco pick out a cell-phone charger, an adapter cord, a fishing reel and a large slab of wood.
"It'll take all of us," Soulia says, to solve one of the most intractable problems that face Casella and other waste handlers – and bog down their bottom lines: the labor input necessary to turn what is little more than a stream of garbage into bales which contain a given recyclable material in concentrations approaching 100%.
Careful separation of recyclables by the consumer would diminish the problem, but that scenario has its pitfalls, too.
As Kelly points out, that would increase the extra labor burden of consumers, who would thus become more inclined to simply throw the materials out, decreasing the amount that gets recycled.
Cleaner recyclables would help, too: No buyer – in China, Vietnam, or anywhere else – is eager to handle pizza cartons with old tomato sauce and toppings moldering in them.
"We're all in this together," Fusco said. "If people care about recycling, their mindfulness can go a long way. If we believe that recycling has an environmental and social value...we all have to make the economics of it work as well."
In other words, the almost-free ride may be over.
The future could see recycling transformed into a service that must be supported by taxes or fees, much as libraries or toll bridges or any number of other public amenities are.
What's clear is that the present model, with its reliance on consumer convenience, processors halfway around the globe, and carbon-intensive shipping, has plenty of downsides.
"We shot ourselves in the foot by telling people recycling is free," Morris puts it.
"Everybody who has a stake in recycling has to do something different than we've done in the past," Fusco says.
CB Hall is a freelance writer from southern Vermont.