Maybe not since Plato wrote about the value of reusing waste in the fourth century BC has recycling undergone the wide fluctuation, good and bad, that we are seeing right now. Today, the world has been forced to rethink its approach to waste.
China is driving the change in recycling.
Most recently, China imposed a 25% tariff on U.S. scrap aluminum. The import has resulted in a more than 15% drop in the price of mixed aluminum scrap this past month to 60 cents per pound, an amount that exceeds the profit margin for processors.
This is against a backdrop of China last July 18 banned the imports of 24 varieties of solid waste, including types of plastic and unsorted paper.
And then last month China extended the ban to dozens more types of recyclable materials, including steel waste, used auto parts and old ships.
The resultant chaos in the recycling market is because China is the largest buyer of much of the recycled material the U.S. exports. Last year, China imported 13 million metric tonnes of waste from the U.S.
And the externalities are breathtaking because shipping companies charge less to import all cargo containers into the U.S. when those containers return filled with waste in lieu of returning empty. Moreover, U.S. environmental laws greatly limit reuse of recyclables, including by way of example making all but impossible to recycle plastic drink bottles at scale in the U.S. Which is why it makes sense to export things that are almost worthless all the way to China.
China has long had an official standard that contaminants in imported waste not exceed 1.5% by weight, but it wasn’t enforced. In 2013, China announced Operation Green Fence under which enforcement would be stricter. And in March, 2017 China announced its new National Sword standard although the details were not clear to many in the West until the July 18 notice that the level of contaminants in plastic and paper recyclables China buys must be no more than 0.3%.
The recent acts by China have resulted in prices for mixed recyclable paper to be zero.
More broadly the price of other recycled products have dropped to levels below anything this law firm has ever seen in more than a decade of drafting corporate solid waste plans.
The impact in the U.S. is most recycling no longer makes any economic sense under existing metrics.
All of this drives higher operating costs and in particular for LEED, Green Globes, IgCC and similar projects that include prescriptive recycling plans.
So, the U.S. has been forced to rethink its approach to recycling, including the U.S. Green Building Council’s sister organization, Green Business Certification Inc., announced in late 2017 it was entering the waste recycling certification business with TRUE (Total Resource Use and Efficiency), the new brand identity for its zero waste rating system. The TRUE Zero Waste rating system helps businesses define, pursue and achieve their zero waste goals through project certification including professional credentialing.
TRUE is a systems approach that helps organizations understand how materials flow through their facilities and identify redesign opportunities so that all products are reused. TRUE certified projects meet a minimum of 90% waste diversion for 12 months from landfills, incinerators or the environment.
The TRUE Zero Waste certification, previously administered by the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council, was acquired by GBCI in 2016. And now TRUE is administered by GBCI as a complement to LEED. View the Guide to Certification to learn more and to rethink your recycling.
And with no place far away to ship waste, recyclable or otherwise, waste to energy projects are no longer environmental pariahs and are getting a new look.
That is the good news in the realm of recycling. Such is significant when according to the EPA, the average American generates 4.4 pounds of trash each day, and that number is not falling but the amount recycled had been increasing.
Against the backdrop of China’s aggressive mercantilist policies, with no good market in which to sell many recyclables, while barring domestic reuse, it is now time to rethink the solid waste practices that are currently not supported by good science and disproportionately negatively impact on economically disadvantaged people, which have been largely unchanged since the 1960s.