That greasy pizza box. That half empty yogurt cup. The thin plastic packaging from your latest Amazon order. You think all those things are recycled after you shove them in the bin? Think again.
Many recyclers might be surprised to know that until recently, roughly one-third of the United State’s recyclable trash was sold and shipped to China as that country fueled its manufacturing industry.
But in January 2018, China, in an effort to clean up its own environment, announced a policy banning most paper and plastic imports, and the recycling industry is now in a crisis as prices plummet and waste with nowhere to go piles up in landfills and processing centers.
A recent study by the University of Georgia found the new policy will result in an estimated 111 million metric tons of displaced waste by 2030.
China no longer wants our trash. And now we’re stuck with it.
“It’s a huge problem everywhere, but we’ve been hit especially hard here in California,” said Lance Klug, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, known as CalRecycle.
Coastal states have been hit the hardest since they had easier access to overseas shipping, he said. California previously sent about 60 percent of all of its recyclables to China. Now, municipalities across the state are scrambling to handle the influx of trash.
A quandary in Long Beach
Klung said many cities have launched public education campaigns to let people know what items are no longer being recycled.
But in Long Beach, city staff have so far held off on such a campaign out of concern that it might confuse residents and discourage them from recycling altogether, said Diko Melkonian, the city’s environmental services manager.
Melkonian said Long Beach may consider a campaign at some point, but so far the city is waiting to see how the unstable recycling market will play out.
“We’re definitely in a quandary, because we’d hate to tell people these things are no longer being recycled and then suddenly a market opens up for it,” he said. “We don’t want to send mixed messages.”
For its estimated 368,000 tons of waste each year, Long Beach contracts with Houston-based Waste Management, which in turn sells the recycling waste to Potential Industries in Wilmington, Melkonian said.
It’s unclear how Potential Industries is handing Long Beach’s recycling in the wake of the China ban. A representative for Potential did not respond to requests for comment.
Melkonian said the city has asked Potential to send any materials that are no longer being recycled to the city’s Southeast Resource Recovery Facility (SERRF) on Terminal Island, where it is processed through boilers.
Meanwhile, Long Beach is in the early stages of a “zero waste” plan to drastically reduce its waste over the next several years. Melkonian said the city within the next six months should have the results of a study on how to better reduce trash.
“Long Beach is having to rethink its recycling, just like every other jurisdiction,” he said.
What gets tossed, what gets recycled
Klug, with CalRecycle, said the recycling situation is confusing since the markets vary by city depending on their waste contracts. So what gets recycled in one community may be different in another.
In general, China is still accepting plastics No. 1 and 2—think water and soda bottles, milk jugs, detergent containers and shampoo bottles.
It is no longer taking thinner, cheap plastics No. 3 through 7—think takeout clam shells, ketchup bottles, yogurt cups, bubble wrap and plastic bags.
Mixed paper like junk mail and cereal boxes is also out. But there’s still a good recycling market for newspapers, white office paper, aluminum cans and cardboard, Klug said.
Glass has long been recycled domestically because it’s too heavy to ship, he added.
Klug said some Southeast Asian countries, like Vietnam, have been buying China’s rejects, but those countries are now getting overwhelmed.
A catalyst for change
In the near future, California will have to drastically reshape its recycling industry and build a more robust infrastructure, Klug said. Like the bans for plastic bags and straws, the state must find new ways to reduce packaging and waste before it hits the bins.
“The silver lining is this is forcing us to have a conversation that we should have been having a long time ago,” he said.
But for now, many recycling businesses are struggling in the changing industry.
At the Port of Long Beach, recycling materials have long been one of the top exports, but last year they took a big hit, said Don Snyder, the port’s acting managing director of commercial operations.
From 2017 to 2018, waste paper exports dropped by one-third, while plastic scrap dropped a whopping 95%, he said. Metal scrap to China dropped by 80 percent.
Despite the loss, the port still saw a record year for exports last year with an overall increase of 3.6%.
Snyder said he thinks the loss in recycling exports will eventually be replaced with new, innovative materials.
“It’s a dynamic market and the demand for international trade is strong,” he said.
In one positive change, there’s a greater need to better sort and clean recyclables, which means more jobs in the industry, said Brandon Wright, a spokesperson for the National Waste & Recycling Association.
Gone are the days when China would take the West’s dirty trash, Wright said. Recyclables now must be clean before they can be processed, and that means changing habits.
Wright said people can start by learning basic tips to help recycling centers, such a rinsing off food and debris before tossing items in the bin.
“We all need to have that conversation about how we can recycle smarter and better,” he said.
Here are some tips from the city.