U.S. recyclers hope to upgrade infrastructure to end dependence on China

A forklift driver in Phoenix stacks bales of sorted recycled material while a conveyor belt delivers material to the workers who will sort it. (Photo by Annika Cline/KJZZ)

PHOENIX – U.S. recycling has nearly collapsed, costs have soared and the environmental waste problem has hit a crisis point since China, the largest buyer of U.S. recycled products, stopped buying nearly 18 months ago. Recycling centers now are looking to rebuild processing plants across the U.S., and that will require a policy change and millions in new funding.

A $2 trillion infrastructure bill did not make it through Congress this year. It died in April and, along with it, a plan to fund big-ticket projects across the country, including upgrades to highways and bridges, bringing broadband internet service in rural America and modernizing U.S. recycling plants so that domestic centers can become the processor China once was.

“We’re asking for $500 million over five years that would be appropriated to EPA that the EPA would then distribute to the states and the states would then provide it to eligible entities,” said David Biderman, executive director of SWANA, the Solid Waste Association of North America. Part of his job is to lobby for federal funding. Now that the infrastructure bill is dead, this funding request is through something called the 2019 RECOVER Act.

“You know, local governments are primarily going to want money for educating their citizens on how to recycle right, on how not to put plastic bags in the bin,” he said. “I don’t think local governments are going to go out and get millions and millions of dollars. The funding simply isn’t going to be available.”

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RECOVER stands for Realizing the Economic Opportunities and Value of Expanding Recycling, part of a long-term plan to end U.S. recycling’s dependence on China.

“I think that we’re going to see continued reduction in the amount of recycling that is exported from the United States,” Biderman said.

We already are. China tightened contamination rates and dried up. Malaysia and the Philippines tapped out and are refusing to take more from the United States. Even Canada has sent material back.

“Recycling is just hard. … There’s no federal policy, there’s nothing on the books at the federal level to say how recycling should happen or where it should happen,” said Cole Rosengren, senior editor of the industry publication Waste Dive.

He says long term U.S. facilities face a fundamental shift in recycling operations, one that takes new funding and new policies.

Because waste companies have exported recycling for so long, the U.S. has no recycling infrastructure to do the job here – no set standard from one city to another on what a recycling process is, no regulations and nowhere near enough mills to process the paper and plastic material collected every day.

“It’s worth remembering that recycling, up until seven or eight years ago, was a very expensive proposition,” said James Thompson, president of Waste Business Journal. “It came into strength in the early ’90s as a result of what was believed at the time to be a crisis in landfill space.”

A lot of communities relied on the local private waste company to add on recycling services for trash pickup. And recycling was subsidized, essentially, by the waste contracts, which became very profitable.

“So, you know, municipalities relied on the companies to create those markets and to bear those costs,” Thompson said. “And they did that by using the lucrative landfill contracts to help that.”

The U.S. recycling industry has been built on a series of individual contracts. Increasingly, those contracts are owned and operated by the largest waste companies, Waste Management and Republic Services.

“They’re doing just fine right now, for the most part, all of these large … waste and recycling companies,” Rosengren said. “They’re still taking a hit financially, but a lot of them are doing stellar at the moment. You know, landfills are quite profitable. Waste collection, you know, running trucks, is very profitable.”

According to Waste Business Journal, U.S. waste and recycling was a $74 billion industry in 2018. Publicly traded companies, including Republic Services, make up 60 percent of that industry – a percentage that’s expected to grow over the next decade.

Rosengren says it is up to each city right now to find its own solution.

“City of Phoenix did utilize, for example, a no-interest loan from one of the big investment arms that’s out there for recycling money to upgrade their recycling facility,” he said. “And so when cities do own or have a stake in their own sorting infrastructure, that’s probably where you’re going to see a lot of the money.”

Twenty-one domestic mills across the U.S. are on pace to be running by 2021, but none are in Arizona.



This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.