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Why your recyclables might have no place to go

Until this year, China had been America's -- and the world's -- number one recycling market. But China has shut its doors to plastic waste, which could result by 2030 in more than 100 million tons of trash with nowhere to go. So how did our recycling become so reliant on a country half a world away? Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, we return to a special series on our plastic problem.

    As we have noted in prior stories, the troubles with recycling are a major part of all of this, but it's become even more pronounced in recent months, as the global market for recycling waste has changed dramatically.

    Economics correspondent Paul Solman has the story.

    It's part of his weekly take Making Sense of financial news.

  • Paul Solman:

    It's trash day in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Every week, Meera Singh dutifully totes her recycling and compost to the curb, taking care of most of the family's waste.

  • Meera Singh:

    This is two weeks' worth of trash.

  • Paul Solman:

    That's two weeks?

  • Meera Singh:

    And what it has is plastics. Like, these are flower sleeves. I try always to tell them I don't need a flower sleeve when you buy flowers, but sometimes I'm not quick enough.

    I compost tea bags. So this is the string. And it has a staple. So it shouldn't go into the compost.

  • Paul Solman:

    Really?

  • Meera Singh:

    The tea bags. Yes, I'm very anal about this.

  • Paul Solman:

    So are you kind of a recycling fanatic?

  • Meera Singh:

    I wish there was a word like OCD for recycling.

  • Paul Solman:

    Since the average American chucks a hefty four-and-a-half pounds of trash a day, and we generate almost a third of the world's waste, with barely 4 percent of its population, Singh's seems discipline seems heroic, if not angelic.

  • Meera Singh:

    These shouldn't go in recycling.

  • Paul Solman:

    In industry parlance, her materials.

  • Ben Harvey:

    Plant is running good. You got 460 tons again today.

  • Paul Solman:

    Ben Harvey runs a recycling plant just west of Cambridge.

  • Ben Harvey:

    We're stockpiling material, hoping that some markets will develop that will open up, but we don't know how long we will continue to be able to hold and store this material and take material in.

  • Paul Solman:

    You might call this Harvey's great wall for China, because, until this year, China had been Cambridge's, America's and indeed the world's number one recycling market. But environmental protection and a reputation makeover have shut China's door to all but the purest of recycling imports.

    Plastics have been banned complete. And by 2030, it's estimated, this could result in more than 100 million tons of plastic waste with nowhere to go.

    And what about our biggest recycle export, paper? Any non-paper items in the two ton bales, like bits of plastic,count as contamination.

  • Ben Harvey:

    They went from a 3 to 5 percent contamination level down to a point 5 percent contamination level, which is almost impossible today to make that product.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, Harvey, like so many other recyclers across the country, is forced to unload once valuable commodities to other countries, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, at a loss.

    Some Massachusetts recyclers have even managed to get waivers from the state to burn what's picked up in the blue bins or send the stuff to landfills. Save That Stuff in Boston has added employees and hours to try to decontaminate and meet the new standards.

    But even though some commercial paper bales do, the Chinese have now imposed volume requirements as well.

  • Marc Galardi:

    They need to ship at least five loads at a time. As you can see, we don't have the space to store five loads of each grade.

  • Paul Solman:

    And Chinese inspectors are suddenly required to visit the facility, says the man whose job it is to market the material, Marc Galardi.

  • Marc Galardi:

    They will take pictures of what's inside the bale. They will probe the bale to see the moisture content.

  • Paul Solman:

    So they want to make sure you haven't waterlogged it, so it'll be heavier, or what?

  • Marc Galardi:

    Yes, or material sitting in an open dumpster, and it's been rained on. They don't want to buy water weight.

  • Paul Solman:

    So how long does the Chinese inspector take?

  • Marc Galardi:

    They could be here for a whole day or half-a-day, depending on how many loads we're shipping.

  • Paul Solman:

    Is that just too time-consuming for you?

  • Marc Galardi:

    It's too time-consuming, and we can't ship any other product during that period.

  • Paul Solman:

    But how in the world, you ask, did our recycling become so reliant on a country half-a-world away?

    Greg Cooper leads recycling efforts in Massachusetts.

  • Greg Cooper:

    About 20, 30 years ago, when we were starting to ramp up our recycling programs across the country, I think China saw an opportunity to utilize some of the materials, the raw materials and the commodities that we were producing through recycling.

    And those materials were presorted at home, as Fred Rogers and Mr. McFeely taught their TV audience back in 1990.

  • Actor:

    Fred, the cans go in there, and the bottles in another one.

  • Paul Solman:

    The new stream of presorted recyclables was an opportunity that quickly prompted Chinese investment.

  • Greg Cooper:

    They started to build a lot of paper mills and plastic manufacturing plants.

  • Paul Solman:

    Just as they were shipping us more and more goods.

    Once unladened, though, the ship's had little but ballast to take back home. So how about the growing stream of U.S. recyclables?

    Erik Levy is the CEO of Save That Stuff.

  • Erik Levy:

    The recyclers were in a great spot. Now, if these containers are going back empty, we can fill it with product.

  • Paul Solman:

    At a rock-bottom shipping cost.

    Recyclables soon became one of America's biggest exports, mainly paper. To up the volume even further and get even more citizens to recycle, municipalities then introduced single-stream recycling.

  • Narrator:

    Common bottles, cans and paper are placed in one bin for collection and then transported to the local single-stream recycling facility.

  • Paul Solman:

    The materials still had enough value that recycling centers could afford to do the sorting for us. More recycling, less attention to detail, resulting in product adulterated with who knows what.

  • Erik Levy:

    People just say, oh, throw in the bin. And for a long time, that was OK.

  • Paul Solman:

    But it's not OK anymore.

  • Marc Galardi:

    We're not moving any material to China. Very difficult to move into China right now.

  • Paul Solman:

    And countries that had been accepting what China wouldn't have also tightened their standards on U.S. recyclables.

    Again, the man who moves the material, Marc Galardi.

  • Marc Galardi:

    This would be a mixed paper right here. Multiple grades of paper mixed together. Right now, that's going to go to India.

  • Paul Solman:

    How can you stay in business if you're paying people to take the product that you were selling?

  • Marc Galardi:

    Well, right now, it's been very difficult. It's really hurt the bottom line. We're trying to do price adjustments to stay ahead of it.

  • Paul Solman:

    Which means his customers, the municipalities he services, will wind up paying more.

    How much more expensive are you today to a new customer than you were a year ago?

  • Marc Galardi:

    More than double.

    And when the contracts come up for renewal?

  • Greg Cooper:

    Municipalities who were either getting paid or getting rid of their recyclables for free are now having to pay fees anywhere from $40, $50, $60 a ton to have them processed.

  • Paul Solman:

    It's become so pricey in California that nearly 1,000 recycling centers have closed in the past two years. The only thing making recycling of paper economically worthwhile in Massachusetts? The state is closing its landfills.

    So with trash costs rising, recyclables remain, for the moment, a cheaper way to go. But if consumers have to pay to recycle, says Ben Harvey.

  • Ben Harvey:

    We're wondering if they would be as excited to do it as they have been in the past.

    There are some areas of the country there are laws that they must recycle. In other parts of the country, they're free to go back to the landfill or waste energy facility.

  • Paul Solman:

    Meanwhile, at the beginning of August, China announced plans to impose a retaliatory 25 percent tariff on paper and plastic recyclables, threatening to make E.L. Harvey's great wall even greater.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, doing a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we all need to sit up and pay attention to that.

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