Reflection on Recycling at its Inflection Point

The recycling industry is going through a major transitional phase where what was the status quo is forced to change in dramatic ways. As once the largest intake of scrap plastics and paper for recycling, China has pushed back through the recent enforcement of their “National Sword” policy. This policy bans 24 types of solid waste, including various plastics and unsorted mixed papers, while setting a much tougher standard for contamination levels.
To give you a perspective, the United States exported 30% less plastic scrap in the first half of 2018 than in all of 2017. Today is even more of an impact; what were once thousands of shipping containers heading to China are now heading to US landfills instead. This exasperates the already challenging conditions of our landfills.

And we keep increasing the level of waste we generate and recycle each year. From 1960 to 2015, the US went from recycling approximately 5.6 million tons of trash to over 70 million tons of trash each year. Now, what can be done to address the significant lack of recycling destinations with the ever-increasing overall waste being generated and an environmental desire to recycle a greater percentage of that waste? Quite the challenge, or better stated, quite the crisis in hand.

At Green World, we offer the following areas of focus to address this recycling and waste crisis:
Global Best Practices: It is ever more critical to be sharing the collective global knowledge on best practices that have been implemented successfully in making inroads to improving the entire waste stream. Each type of waste stream impacts another, some more than others such as those that are now competing to fill our landfills. In various countries, different and successful approaches have been taken that need to be robustly shared to the global waste industry.

  • Higher Value of Recycling: Finding ways to give an enhanced value to recyclable waste will impact the opportunity to expand domestic capabilities for processing recyclables and create a major paradigm shift for those generating it. Behavior changes can be greatly influenced when the monetary value of recyclables reaches tipping-point levels. A combination of subsidies by government, stakeholder businesses, and waste biproduct manufacturers can bring the necessary funds for improving the perceived value of waste and reward a shared-economy model to take hold.
  • Innovation Support: Supporting breakthrough technology can bring game-changing economics to the various stages within the waste and recycling process. Increasing R&D funding through grants, contests, contract awards, and other means to stimulate and accelerate technology advancements is critical to making quantum leaps in record time. Knowing about these innovations through a global network of support and designing policies and strategies to ensure promising technology reaches the market as soon as possible needs to be put in place.
  • Reducing waste: As the most obvious and yet most challenging, reducing our generation of waste is of the utmost objective in this battle. This is a complex issue that combines changing consumer behavior, manufacturer methodology, packaging, transportation, innovation, and policy. Using carefully crafted “carrots and sticks” applied to all those involved can bring incremental change to meeting the global waste and recycling crisis.

On a timely note, for those eager to learn more specifics, the Paper and Plastics Recycling Conference is heading to Chicago on October 23rd through the 25th.
We look forward to seeing you there. In the meantime, we appreciate any of your comments on how you see contending with the recycling challenges ahead.

By:  Jeff Grossberg, Editor/GWA