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Loss of Chinese export market drives new ideas for repurposing recyclables

China’s decision to buy less recyclable material from the U.S. has prompted major questions about how we handle waste in America. What will we do with our abundance of plastic bottles and pizza boxes, if exporting them is no longer an option? As Paul Solman discovers, some local governments and businesses have devised innovative ways to reuse these items--and to educate consumers.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to our series of reports on the plastic problem.

    Last week, economics correspondent Paul Solman looked at the recycling crunch the United States now faces, as China has stopped accepting much of our waste.

    This week, he tries to answer the question, so, what do we do now?

    The story is part of our weekly series Making Sense, which runs every Thursday.

  • Meera Singh:

    We can't put these in our recycling, chips bags, cookie wrappers.

  • Paul Solman:

    You can't?

  • Meera Singh:

    We can't put it in the regular recycling. But there's another organization. They recycle all kinds of things.

  • Paul Solman:

    Ah, you might think, if only each of us did as Cambridge, Massachusetts, recycling fanatic Meera Singh does.

  • Meera Singh:

    Oftentimes, when I go to heaven, which is what I call our recycling center…

  • Paul Solman:

    You call — you call it what?

  • Meera Singh:

    I call it heaven.

  • Paul Solman:

    Heaven.

  • Meera Singh:

    Everyone should go there.

  • Paul Solman:

    To Meera Singh, heaven. To most Americans, not even on the radar.

  • Meera Singh:

    Good karma. You recycle, you go to heaven.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    So, you can't be serious. This is heaven?

  • Michael Orr:

    Yes, to some of our residents, this is heaven.

  • Paul Solman:

    Michael Orr runs recycling for Cambridge,where more than a few highly motivated recyclers like Singh reside, classy book exchange club, classy somewhat bigger-ticket items.

  • Michael Orr:

    Such as the chair I'm sitting on right now. This is something that a resident dropped off and said, I no longer need, and later today someone will be taking this chair home.

  • Paul Solman:

    With China and other countries suddenly rejecting our recyclables and trash prices rising as landfills close down, one response might be to emulate Cambridge's recycling cadre, while disciplining the rest of us.

    Bubble wrap.

    It would be nice to know exactly what to put in the bins.

    This shouldn't go in recycling?

  • Michael Orr:

    Bubble wrap and plastic bags, plastic film in general shouldn't be going in the recycling.

  • Paul Solman:

    Because?

  • Michael Orr:

    Because it jams up the machinery. It's the number one contaminant and the number one most damaging contaminant in the recycling facilities.

  • Paul Solman:

    You can't recycle this?

  • Michael Orr:

    Paper plates are tricky ones.

    What we're looking for are clean paper products. Often, paper plates have food product on it. Or maybe it's coated in wax.

  • Paul Solman:

    And pizza boxes?

  • Michael Orr:

    As long as there's no food in it, the grease is OK, and they can recycle it.

  • Paul Solman:

    The grease is OK?

  • Michael Orr:

    Yes, we can recycle pizza boxes.

  • Paul Solman:

    You're making me feel better.

    But so much that's put into the bins is not OK. So, Cambridge tries to teach people with a little tough love.

  • Michael Orr:

    Our driver will go, put a rejection sticker on it, note to them what they did wrong.

  • Paul Solman:

    Ooh.

  • Michael Orr:

    And they will have to call us, and clean it up, and then we will come back and pick it up the next day.

    But every once in a while, we have to kind of nudge people in the right direction.

  • Paul Solman:

    I would say that's more like a shove than a nudge.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    The city also has an instructional sorting game in their Cambridge recycles app and videos posted on their Web site, including one for kids, as does the state of Massachusetts, with nearly 250 communities taking part in an effort to educate consumers.

    But the problem with single-stream recycling, where you don't sort out plastics, paper or metal, it means lots of work at the plant. There is, however, a major garbage stream that can be isolated for recycling, food waste, which makes up a quarter of all trash. Most of it ends up rotting in landfills, where it generates methane, a greenhouse gas way more potent than carbon dioxide.

    So why not compost organic matter, thought Mike Orr's predecessor, Randi Mail, back in 2002.

  • Randi Mail:

    It's something that makes it possible for people not to really have to do anything other than just drop their banana peels in a different container.

  • Paul Solman:

    And 16 years after she had the idea, Cambridge is turning food waste into clean energy, with pickup citywide, at a new plant in nearby Charlestown.

  • Eric Myers:

    Some of this, I believe, came from a grocery store. Perhaps it's expired product.

  • Paul Solman:

    Eric Myers runs the food waste operation.

  • Eric Myers:

    And that material, they want to recycle it, but it's not suitable for human consumption.

  • Paul Solman:

    But it's been a lot easier to just dump outdated orange juice and yesterday's wieners, dead heads of lettuce and bummer hummus, even no-good Necco Wafers, named for the recently shuttered New England candy company just a few miles away.

    Instead, they're all now turned into what's called an engineered bioslurry.

  • Eric Myers:

    We have a blending process to make what we like to think of as kind of an energy super shake that has an incredible amount of energy. We just think of it as food waste, but it's really fats and sugars and carbohydrates and proteins.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, every day, some 10,000 gallons of super shake is piped into tankers and trucked 30 miles north, where it's transformed into fuel, the same way wastewater recovery facilities treat dirty water.

    Right now at this plant, the energy is being used to power the wastewater plant itself. But in the future?

  • Eric Myers:

    Every time we receive here, we can generate enough power to power about nine homes.

  • Paul Solman:

    Meaning that when this plant hits its handling capacity of 250 tons a day, it can power 2,400 homes.

    The U.S. generate something like 100,000 tons of food waste a day, but barely 5 percent of it is being recycled. Use it all, and we'd be able to power more than a million homes a day. And that's not all.

  • Eric Myers:

    In addition to extracting energy from the food waste, they also take the solids that are left over, they put them through another testing process. And they create a product that in this case is a pellet product.

  • Paul Solman:

    So they're just like little grains here.

  • Eric Myers:

    That's right. That's used for fertilization of fields and farms, turf applications.

  • Paul Solman:

    It's also about 30 to 40 percent cheaper to dispose of per ton in trash, which saves Cambridge money, says Mike Orr.

  • Michael Orr:

    Since the launch of curbside compost, we have seen a 10 percent decrease in our trash.

  • Paul Solman:

    So Randi Mail's early vision is reality, at least for Cambridge.

  • Randi Mail:

    In order to change the system, we need to make a commitment to buy our own recyclables and use our own recyclables in American manufacturing and make sure that we're not reliant on exports.

  • Paul Solman:

    So you mean stimulate recycling industry or industries which used recycled products here in America.

  • Randi Mail:

    Yes. Reopen paper mills that have closed. Require paper products to be made with higher percentages of recycled content. And make a commitment from an institution standpoint to buy these materials.

  • Paul Solman:

    And here's where our story takes a surprisingly, or perhaps just wishfully, positive turn.

    The state's Greg Cooper things the China clampdown might actually prompt such changes.

  • Greg Cooper:

    These recyclable materials are commodities, like soybeans or oranges or coal or anything else. And they have a value.

    And new investments are being made domestically to try to manage that material. What we always see in the markets is, the markets adjust.

  • Paul Solman:

    The market for recycled plastics in the Northeast is one example. Many recycling firms, including the one servicing Cambridge, funnel their plastics to carpet manufacturers.

    This plant in Virginia turns about six billion plastic bottles into rugs every year. And closer to home, a new firm, Preserve, just outside Boston has begun to turn local plastics into kids' toothbrushes and heavy-duty cutlery, among many other items.

    In the end, though, this might not be so bad for the Chinese economy either. Some Chinese firms have now announced deals to buy American paper mills.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, reporting from in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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