US scrap recycling has been an integral link in the domestic and global manufacturing supply chain for more than 200 years, growing over the decades into an expansive industry worth more than $106 billion and employing nearly 150,000 workers each year.
Recycling isn’t just a multi-billion-dollar industry, however; reusing scrap such as metal, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, rubber, and electronics as feedstock for a diverse array of manufacturing processes is an environmental necessity. Scrap recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption while also improving water and air quality and conserving natural resources.
China’s intent to shut their ports to waste and scrap imports threatens to undo much of the economic and environmental good achieved through US recycling. And repercussions will be felt across the board, from exporters engaged in the $5.2 billion US-China trade right to the curbside.
Despite the mounting case against China’s material import bans, the Chinese government isn’t likely to heed the global industry’s warnings. So, where does the US recycling industry go from here?
Here are just a few potential strategies the US can implement to strengthen the country’s recycling economy:
Rethinking curbside collection and consumer education.
As single-stream recycling has increased, so too have contamination rates, inflating processing costs and landfilling once reusable commodities. Targeting the point of collection can ease the burden for material recovery facilities (MRFs) and promote higher-quality yields.
Material audits of individual bins, for example, can be a useful tactic in educating consumers, such as in Massachusetts where a team was sent to the streets to survey individual bins and leave an “oops” tag to inform consumers what materials should not have been there. Of course, education isn’t always enough. Municipalities with high contamination rates should share the cost of processing by enacting rate increases.
Updating and expanding US recycling infrastructure.
While the US should expand its current recycling infrastructure, there are improvements that can be made to existing facilities to increase processing capacity and improve material quality.
The first step is to implement material audits at each step of recovery, from the point of delivery to shipment – and even at the point of generation, such as commercial outlets. Analyzing material at each interval allows recyclers to implement quality control measures where they are most effective.
Updating recycling technology to handle an ever-changing waste stream should follow. For example, advanced robotics powered by intelligent software programs can increase separation accuracy and throughput, adapt to changing streams, and collect an enormous amount of useful data.
Establishing a stronghold in alternative markets.
Since China’s announcement to exit the waste and scrap import market, alternative markets have been expanding in the Middle East, Latin America, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, while Chinese processors have been moving their operations to countries in South East Asia, including Vietnam.
Developing relationships between exporters and these burgeoning markets should be of primary importance, especially for those who trade scrap plastic and recovered paper (RCP) as more than half of all these materials used to enter Chinese ports.
Maintaining government programs that support the recycling industry through research.
As monumental changes occur across the global recycling industry, research and analysis of consumption, disposal, and reuse of materials will be vital in aiding a successful transition to an economy without China.
That’s why some experts believe the elimination of certain EPA programs, including the Sustainable Materials Management program and the Waste Reduction Model, is ill-advised. These programs provide important guidelines for both the industry and elected officials, promoting intelligent investments in both the public and private sectors.
The US cannot sit idle as the country is cut off from one of its main export markets. To preserve and improve the US recycling economy, public and private enterprises ought to forge partnerships to create lasting solutions. If you generate, handle, or process waste and would like to strengthen your position in this uncertain market, please contact our industry veterans at Berg Mill Supply.
As we have done in the past, Berg Mill continues to work hard on creating solutions to overcome fluctuating commodity markets, including opening markets in other countries, forging strategic alliances, and improving domestic processing capabilities.