When you toss that single use water bottle or Snickers wrapper in the blue bin labeled ‘recycling,’ you probably feel at least *a little* good about yourself, right? Though it doesn’t negate that it was your third Snickers that day, at least your wrapper is going into a refined recycling process to end up in someone’s sneakers or wrapping someone else’s guilty sugar bomb.
That is where it’s going, right?
Operation National Sword
The answer varies depending on when you ask that question. Before late 2018, it’s more likely than not that your wrapper would end up on a large shipping vessel bound for China. Instead, a recent University of Georgia study found that in 2016, about half of all plastic waste intended for recycling (14.1 million MT) was exported internationally, with China taking the bulk as imports (7.35 million MT).
The economics for this global trade in recyclable waste were once pretty simple; historically cheap Chinese labor costs, high East Asian demand for used plastics, a growing American consciousness around recycling, and the absence of a nationwide recycling policy created an ideal environment for the U.S. to create a recycling export supply chain that relied on the Chinese appetite for American used plastics. Probably not what you were expecting, but it worked.
If you were to ask the same question today, the situation looks a lot bleaker. In February 2017, the Chinese government announced a wholesale (albeit phased) ban, called “Operation National Sword” on the import of recycled plastics. This shift was in direct response to rising Chinese environmental concerns, growing domestic production of their own single-use plastics, and image concerns about being the world’s “waste dump.” Besides being easily mistaken for the name of a punk rock band, this policy has the potential to debilitate, if not totally cripple the US’ current recycling industry. This is because our current infrastructure is largely built to sort, clean, and export plastics and paper, not process them and complete a domestic recycling loop.
We’re already seeing the first warning shots of an impending crisis. Per the NYT, hundreds of local recycling programs in American cities and towns are collapsing. In states like Tennessee, Florida, and Pennsylvania, cities are reportedly sending newspapers, cans, and bottles to landfills, while others are burning their recycled waste. As the treasurer of California put it, “We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now.” In Boston, for example, the price for mixed paper recycling has dropped from $75/ton to less than $5/ton. Over the coming decade, as many as 111 million tons of plastics will have to find a new place to be processed or otherwise disposed because of National Sword.
What do we do?
Although there’s significant cause for concern, the consultant in me prefers to think about the changing regulatory environment as a double-edged sword (no pun intended). It will force us to reckon with unsustainable consumer, corporate, and municipal behaviors that have for too long been propped up by artificially inflated recycling commodity prices. While the following is by no means a comprehensive list of possible answers, any solution to address this problem will require stakeholders in the public and private sectors — as well as from individual consumers — to work in concert to modernize the current system.
Before I get on my soap-box to talk about how we can change our recycling habits, I’ve got to come clean. When I take the split-second decision to throw something either into my recycling, compost, or trash bin, I’m guessing that I get it right about 60% of the time. It also doesn’t help that, living in San Francisco, we have different bins for every different plastic polymer (crazy!).
At the end of the day, though, the accumulation of every bad shot I take at the trash can (I’m not Steph Curry, y’all) starts to add up. Over millions of iterations, that’s several thousand pounds of recyclable waste that doesn’t even get a chance to end up in our totally screwed recycling system. To that effect, there are some behavioral nudges that we can all implement to make sure that we’re sorting our trash properly. These include separating our bins, buying bigger bins, or shaping lids. In one particular study, cone-shaped lids increased correct recycling by 34%, and the number of contaminants in the recycling stream decreased by 95%.
More to the point (and back to National Sword), our current recycling infrastructure is woefully inadequate at actually cleaning and sorting papers and plastics when they reach the MRF (Material Recovery Facility). Although it’s at the bottom of most recycling guides, I can’t for the life of me remember the last time I washed a piece of recycling before throwing it in the bin. Traditionally, Chinese import restrictions on plastic quality have been low, so this hasn’t been a problem. National Sword is being implemented under a phased implementation where, before a total ban, what plastics China will accept will be held to the strictest standards. Currently, the best MRFs can get materials contamination down to 3% — China is demanding contamination under 0.5%. That means that most half-eaten yogurt cup or greasy pizza box that we lazily throw in the blue bin will get landfilled before they ever make it overseas.
While the obvious answer here would be to urge everyone to wash their recycling and scrub their pizza cardboard, ‘aint nobody got time for that. Especially as traveling consultants, it’s very unlikely many of us will have access to a sink or sponge in the in-air lavatory.
The solution, then is going to have to involve using less overall plastic. Given that so many of our meals are eaten out or in hotels, it’s really hard to avoid single-use plastics That’s why it’s so imperative that we carry our own water bottles and use compostable plastics whenever you’re eating out. I’ve recently taken to carrying my own reusable utensils when I travel. I’m not saying you necessarily have to go so far, but it’s something to be conscious about.
Corporate and Municipal Changes
As much as consumer demand drives how our commodity landscape changes, the onus to reduce overall plastic waste also lies at the feet of product producers. This is for the simple reason that the elasticity of consumer plastic demand is much higher than for producer supply. This makes logical sense, as it is easier on the margins for consumers to use their own bags at the grocery store than it is for large producers to shift entire packaging supply chains away from single-use plastic. Though many states have begun to implement bans or mandatory taxes on plastic bags, plastic straws, and other single use plastics, few of these policies extend to include packaging materials. To their credit, companies like Nestle and Coca-Cola are beginning to experiment with recyclable, reusable, and compostable packaging, but it’s orders of magnitude away from meaningful change. How the regulatory landscape around plastic production changes will depend in large part on shifting consumer preferences and regulators’ willingness to force large producers to change. It’s anyone’s guess how long that might take.
We don’t have as much time to solve the acute inadequacies of our current MRF/recycling infrastructure. In the US, small town and rural recycling operations have been hit the hardest by National Sword. While most continue to operate, rising costs and falling incomes are forcing some, like the one in Kingsport, Tennessee, to shut down. Others, like Phoenix City, Alabama, have stopped accepting all plastics, while places like Deltona, Florida, have suspended curbside pickup. Residents in municipalities like these now must travel to collection points, sometimes in distant locations, if they want to recycle. And I thought it was hard to bank a shot in my kitchen recycling bin.
Most larger cities — such as New York, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon — have been able to either find alternative markets or improve and expand their municipal operations to process higher-quality and more marketable materials. But many have had to make changes, including dropping some harder-to-recycle materials from their programs. Sacramento, California, for instance, halted collection of plastics labeled №4 through 7 for several months last year at the city waste operator’s request. Instead, residents were told to discard those items in their household garbage.
Though I admittedly don’t have the solution to our infrastructure woes, one possible policy framework with potential would be to institute statewide taxes on plastic consumption and production and use the additional revenues to fund further investment in updating infrastructure. Given that recycling policy is dictated on a municipal level, however, the distribution of revenues raised would have to be done in a way that benefits small communities/towns and ensures that most Americans get even access to recycling resources.
Given that I work for Big Blue, I would be remiss to leave out the potential role that innovation has to mitigate/reduce the impacts of National Sword. Namely, a number of companies are using machine learning to optimize optical sorting algorithms that would allow future MRFs to more effectively sort single-stream recycling into constituent parts. Though I’ve focused largely on plastic recycling, optical sorters would allow MRFs to separate metal, paper, and other sundry recyclables from different kinds of plastics. Notably, this would reduce the need for manual sorters, which in turn would reduce the cost of updating our recycling infrastructure. Although I’m not aware of any IBM program that is currently engaged in optical sorting for recycling, there’s a lot of potential for us to grow.
More interestingly, IBM recently announced at THINK 2019 the near-completion of the “VolCat” recycling catalyst. Per the IBM blog post on VolCat; “In five years, the disposal of trash and the creation of new plastics will be completely transformed. Everything from milk cartons to cookie containers to grocery bags and cheese cloths will be recyclable, and polyester manufacturing companies will be able to take in refuse and turn it into something useful. . .This transition will be powered by innovations like VolCat, a catalytic chemical process that digests certain plastics (called polyesters) into a substance that can be fed directly back into plastic manufacturing machines in order to make new products.”
Bob Allen, IBM Research’s senior manager has described VolCat in the following language. “Plastic bottles, containers, and PET-based fabrics are collected, ground up, and combined with a chemical catalyst in a pressure cooker set to above 200 degrees Celsius. . .With heat and a small amount of pressure, the catalyst is able to digest and clean the ground-up plastic, and the process separates contaminants (e.g., food residue, glue, dirt, dyes, and pigments) from material that is useable for new PET. The useable matter (called a monomer) takes the form of a white powder, which can be fed directly into a polyester reactor to make brand new plastics.” The potential to bring VolCat to market in a post-National Sword environment is huge given that PET is one of the plastic polymers that we are currently unable/unequipped to process at scale in the United States.
I’ll fully admit — when I started researching for this post, I knew little to nothing about the recycling supply chain. The more I’ve learned, however, the more I realized that the complexity of our waste disposal system is astounding. Short of getting a PhD in chemical engineering or urban planning, I know enough to say that any solution to our current recycling woes will require comprehensive consumer, corporate, public policy, and innovation. In the meanwhile, go ahead and have your 4th piece of snickers — just make sure to wash it and bank it into the right bin.