The solution will ultimately be negotiated between buyers in China and sellers in the US. If our governments, both governments, can contain themselves, and stay out of it, supply/demand will create a compromise and we’ll move forward toward a solution. Right now, the swords are drawn and we’re into saber rattling. Let me explain.
The Chinese paper industry has historically purchased half of its secondary fiber from US suppliers. In fact, the two largest Chinese paper companies, Nine Dragons and Lee & Man, actually have US subsidiaries that buy enormous quantities of fiber. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of containers that were flowing to China (emphasis on were)! The problem: we’ve been shipping them fiber with high percentages of contaminants. The Chinese government has stopped shipments. They’ve said, “no more garbage.” Therefore, fiber flow for export to China, generated here in America, has stopped. Materials are left unsold and sitting at ports, unloaded. It is sitting in warehouses, unsold. Tons and tons of waste paper, loaded with contamination. In fact, the Chinese now believe that 25% of what they’ve purchased over the last 5–10 years has been garbage – waste paper with high percentages of contraries.
The US is the largest generator of waste in the world. The US is also the largest processor and supplier of recovered paper and plastics in the world. The numbers and volumes are staggering. In fact, we are recycling/recovering so much paper and plastic that our infrastructure and domestic markets can’t consume it all. Herein lies the problem: within the recovered paper industry, waste paper recyclers are dependent on off-shore markets to maintain consistent movement of their product. If the industry can’t maintain off-shore relationships, an enormous imbalance develops causing two problems. First, prices crash, and, second, all the fiber and plastic that’s been collected goes back to the landfill. So, everything we’ve tried to do to become better environmental citizens backfires!
Garbage becomes the issue again. We are now taking a step backward as we try to get our hands around the problem and ultimately the solution. I believe there are several drivers to this cycle, the two keys being sustainability and markets. Until we get our hands around these two, the cycle will continue.
Sustainability demands recycling, recovery and reuse. The very concept of a “circular economy” means we keep materials flowing, we keep recyclables out of the landfill and incinerator. It also means we will have more fiber and polymers in our daily material flow. Unless we have markets for these materials, sustainability has caused more problems than it has solved. What do we do with all of this secondary material? The immediate solution is dumping: materials in offshore markets. If these markets collapse for whatever reason, we’re really up the creek. In other words, what do we do with this “stuff?” You can only warehouse and hold so much material, particularly low value material. Ultimately, the materials go back to the landfill for lack of markets. (This reminds me of the barge load of garbage from New York going from port to port trying to find someone who would take it. Finally, months later, the barge returns to New York, where it is unloaded and sent to incineration and the ash, trucked back to Islip, Long Island, NY, the port of origin. This, after a 6,000 mile journey and a cost of $1 million plus.
So, sustainability has created a monster of a problem: too much material. The fact that we don’t have the markets for the material only exasperates the problem. What do we do with it? Of course, this begs the question, which comes first: sustainability or markets?
There’s one more problem: processability. We have so much material to recycle we have to process it quickly, and our existing technology doesn’t allow for contaminate extraction. We just do not have the ability to effectively clean and process the materials we’re generating. The industry is trying to process too much, too quickly. This results in dirty material. Hence the Chinese decision to stop purchases of American waste paper.
Step back a moment and think about sequence. Sustainability created more demand for recycling. Generators, both consumer and industry, begin collecting recyclables. The easiest way to recycle is to put all recyclables into one bin. Glass, cans, newspapers, magazines, plastic containers, release liner, everything recyclable is put into a single collection box. We call this “single stream” recycling.
True, single stream recycling is undoubtedly the easiest, most cost-effective method for moving recyclables from one point to another. On the other hand, single stream creates contamination. The process starts at the point of generation, the home or business. The co-mingled materials are picked up on a route that stops at dozens of points. Everyone’s recyclables are dumped together, and this mixed material is taken to a MRF (municipal recycling facility). The mixture is conveyed through magnets, robots, scanners and humans in an attempt to segregate different material such as paper, metal, plastics and glass. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to make a contaminate-free material with this process. How can it, when the generator can’t tell the difference between PET and Styrene, or wax and PE coated corrugated? After all, it does begin with knowledge of what you can and cannot put in your bin!
No wonder the Chinese don’t like what we’re shipping. It’s full of contamination. It’s full of non-recyclables. On the one hand, we have Walmart, Pepsi-Cola, and Proctor & Gamble driving sustainability, creating huge volumes of recyclables. On the other hand, we don’t have the markets, especially if the recycling process can’t remove the contaminants.
America has the ability to do almost anything. We can land a man on the moon, we can develop driverless cars, we can grow food in warehouses hydroponically. However, in the case of sustainability we need to take a step back and make sure the markets are ready for the materials.
That’s number 1. Number 2, we need to make sure our technology is capable of handling the volume of material that has or will be available from sustainable practices. Finally, we must educate participants regarding what can or cannot be included for recycling. We have a conundrum on both communication and practice, and if sustainability is going to be successful, these must be solved.
Another Letter from the Earth.
Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is