What's Happening to All the "Recycled" Waste Now That It's Not Shipped to China?

credit: Playmobil recycling truck

It's déjà vu all over again as the industry pushes "chemical recycling".

We have had recycling since the seventies. It's part of our lives. Saabira Chaudhuri writes in the Wall Street Journal:

For decades, America and much of the developed world threw their used plastic bottles, soda cans and junk mail in one bin. The trash industry then shipped much of that thousands of miles to China, the world’s biggest consumer of scrap material, to be sorted and turned into new products.
Then everything changed when China closed its doors. Other Asian countries have followed suit. Shipments of plastic to China are down 89 percent, mixed paper is down 96 percent. So what is happening now?
credit: Garbage trucks/ Lloyd Alter

Garbage trucks/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The U.K. is burning more of its trash, including dirty or low-value recycling. Attitudes toward incineration vary greatly by country. In the U.S., where space is plentiful, it has long been cheaper to send materials to landfills, and incineration has remained unpopular. Across much of Europe, by contrast, trash burned for energy has been popular for years.

One problem in North America is the mixed recycling bins, which were easier for the homeowners but required so much labor in China to separate out everything. Now, it is even tougher because some plastics still have a bit of value, and others have none. Paper that used to sell for $120 a ton now goes for $5. Many cities just don't bother anymore; people carefully recycle everything, having established the habit, but then it all gets sent to landfill. People are shocked.

Kristie Ramirez didn’t believe her 12-year-old daughter when she came home from school one afternoon and said Deltona was sending their recycling to a landfill—residents were still filling and setting out recycling containers, but collectors were dumping it all into the regular trash. The 35-year-old, who called her waste company to check, still puts out her blue recycling bin on collection days, saying she doesn’t know what else to do. “I have always practiced recycling as long as there’s a recycling bin that comes with my trash bin,” she says.
processes

© Closed Loop Partners

So what are the alternatives? In an earlier article, Chaudhuri pitches "chemical recycling" which "uses chemicals or heat to break down plastic so it can be turned into clean, new plastic again and again while preserving quality—a Holy Grail for the industry."

Meanwhile, nobody quite knows what the environmental impact is, it only works with certain kinds of plastics, and only a small fraction of plastics out there are actually being picked up anyway. Oh, and "the tougher bonds in such plastic require temperatures as high as 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit in the absence of oxygen to break down." That takes a lot of energy.

In fact, it is unlikely that picking up garbage, separating it, and cooking it will ever make any kind of economic sense, particularly when the petrochemical industry is investing billions in a pivot to plastic. The only reason it will ever happen is because of regulation:

Chemical recycling has been around since the 1950s, but high costs and a lack of demand made it financially unviable. Companies are turning to it now, partly because of the need to find more recycled material to meet or forestall regulations aiming to cut emissions and waste. Beverage companies are especially under pressure, following a European Union directive for plastic bottles to use 30% recycled plastic starting in 2030. The U.K. plans to start taxing plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled content in 2022.

As we note every year on America Recycles Day, we got into this mess when the bottling industry invented recycling as an alternative to deposit and bottle return laws being proposed to deal with landfill crises. As Heather Rogers wrote in Message in a Bottle:

With landfill space shrinking, new incinerators ruled out, water dumping long ago outlawed and the public becoming more environmentally aware by the hour, the solutions to the garbage disposal problem were narrowing. Looking forward, manufacturers must have perceived their range of options as truly horrifying: bans on certain materials and industrial processes; production controls; minimum standards for product durability."

That's when the bottling and packaging companies became ardent supporters of recycling. And now they are at it again, proposing chemical recycling. I wrote earlier that "it is the plastics industry telling government, "Don't worry, we will save recycling, just invest zillions in these new reprocessing technologies and maybe in a decade we can turn some of it back into plastic."

Really, governments should just learn the lessons of the last time they fell for this racket, demand a zero waste economy with deposits on everything and bans on single use plastics. It is the only way to solve it.