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Category: Exporting Recycling

Exporting Recycling & China’s Green Fence

For the past 20 years, the United States has been exporting its raw materials such as metal, paper, plastic and more, instead of recycling the materials here in the U.S. While this is good for the trade deficit with China – scrap is our largest export to that country – it may not be so good in the long run. China is implementing higher standards on imports of recycled material via Operation Green Fence. This could have quite an impact on the recycling industry and the U.S. in a broader context, forcing the U.S. to have higher standards for what they export worldwide.

One reason the United States began exporting to China is because, as a result of the large amount of goods we import from them, the shipping containers that carried those goods were being sent back to the country empty. It made sense to send them back filled with bales of empty cardboard boxes which those goods had been packed in because China does not have the forest resources that the U.S. does. Most of China’s packaging was previously made from recycled fibers which proved quite flimsy. China wanted to import our high quality cardboard to mix in with their low quality fibers to make better packaging. This win-win situation began the exporting of our recyclables.

As the U.S. became a consumer economy with a shrinking manufacturing base, Chinese manufacturing was growing. The U.S. generates more scrap than it is able to consume domestically. Meanwhile Chinese demand for raw materials grew and recyclables are a lower cost raw material compared to virgin raw materials.

The May 2012 issue of ISRI (The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries) Scrap details that in 2011, the U.S. collected 52.8 million tons of recycling and exported more than 23 million tons—a record. About 15.8 million tons went to China, 23 percent more than in 2010. Half that, 7.9 million tons were exported to the rest of the world.

Beginning in February of 2013 China launched what they’re calling “Operation Green Fence“, a 10-month long initiative that kicked off in February to prevent the importation of solid waste-contaminated shipments. Operation Green Fence has set a limit of 1.5 percent prohibitive, or allowable contaminant, in each bale, in an effort to keep trash out of China. Headed by Wang Jiwei, vice president and secretary-general of the China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association Recycling Metal Branch (CMRA), the new initiative will include random inspection of all forms of “imported waste,” meaning metal, plastic, textiles, rubber and recovered paper materials.

At the ISRI convention, held April 9-13, 2013 in Orlando, Florida, a statement from Wang Jiwei revealed that the initiative is part psychological—to make shippers know China will “strictly examine the import application and [consider whether] to approve the import license” of shippers who are caught sending sub-standard material.

As Operation Green Fence is rolled out and rules and regulations begin to change, it is clear that the amount of materials we export will be reduced. However, as single stream recycling is becoming more widely adopted, we are producing even more contaminated materials. If China and other importers are operating at higher standards, where will all of the new contaminated materials go?

The options for what to do with these recyclable materials are few. Many could end up in landfills and some could be shipped to other Asian countries where they will be sorted in order to meet Chinese specifications.

China’s Green Fence policy could greatly impact the recycling industry both here in the United States and worldwide. Currently the initiative is putting a great pressure on prices as recyclers are not shipping to China for fear of rejections. More material is available domestically so the domestic mills can pay less. When supply goes up, the price comes down. If China maintains Operation Green Fence past its current set timeframe, the cost of exporting our materials could rise as well. These projected views are based, however, on the likelihood of China staying steadfast in their Green Fence policy. Because China’s appetite for scrap as a raw material is voracious, the Chinese manufacturers may put pressure on the government to relax the policy in the coming months.

Operation Green Fence may be a burden to the recycling industry presently, but it could be the perfect time for businesses and municipalities to really evaluate how our current policies are affecting the end result. If the materials we are exporting are so contaminated that they are being rejected by those we sell to, maybe it’s time to take another look at dual stream recycling. Keeping our materials separated allows our domestic recycling industry to recycle the maximum amount of materials, whether here or abroad, which keeps them out of the world’s landfills.

On May 9th 2013 this article was mentioned by Brad Plumer on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog in an article titled, “China doesn’t even want to buy our garbage anymore.”

 

Image above by merfam on Flickr.

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Comments

  • Jordan - May 10, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    It will be difficult to convince Americans who are accustomed to the ease of single stream recycling to switch to dual stream recycling. This will likely lead to more material going to landfills and an overall reduction in recycling rates. China will continue to buy recycled materials because it is still the world’s manufacturing base. Sure, some manufacturing may move over to Vietnam or Indonesia but the bulk will likely stay in China. The country just has too much invested in manufacturing. And they aren’t growing any new forests there, so fiber will still need to come from the western world. Recycling rates in China are horrible and not likely to increase anytime soon. Single stream recycling will likely remain in the U.S. for many years to come.

    Reply
    • Valerie Androutsopoulos - May 14, 2013 at 8:24 pm

      Hi Jordan,

      Thanks for commenting! One of the largest recycling companies back in the 90’s coined the phrase “when in doubt, leave it out.” Unfortunately, the opposite is true with single-stream – when in doubt, toss it in, and someone else will sort it out. This practice has allowed us to become lazy. The biggest contaminant we see is not the clam-shell carryout box, a #1 but thermoformed PET so not acceptable even in single stream, but the potato chip bag, pickle and “last bite” left in the box and the half of lemon or tea bag still the cup. To borrow from Jeffrey Davis of Greenwala,“the easier recycling gets, the more likely the industry will collapse.”

      - Valerie

      Reply
  • Valerie Androutsopoulos - July 8, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    Hello Barney, thanks for commenting. This is a very interesting perspective. I welcome a new player in the current waste management oligopoly. However, we support the “go local” movement, active environmentally-minded communities and small businesses. Call it self-preservation if you like. While converting recyclables to fuel may solve our dependence on foreign oil, it does nothing to reduce our consumption of virgin raw materials and the energy-intensive extraction of them. And while trees are now a crop, I find it hard to believe that it’s a “higher & better purpose” to make toilet paper out of virgin pulp because we’re using recovered paper & cardboard to make gasoline. Finally, it remains to be seen if machines do a better job of sorting – the contaminated recyclables China is rejecting are primarily coming from the magnet-eddy current-optical-trommel-star screen systems And what about the jobs these machines replace? No one grows up saying “I want to work on a sorting line.” But these are entry-level positions that allow an unskilled worker to demonstrate responsibility & dependability and a desire to do better so they can move up the proverbial ladder of success. And, they’re better than minimum wage jobs to off-set the “yuck” factor. While it’s wise to investigate all options, putting all the recyclables into one unproven technological basket is risky when there’s so much at stake.

    Reply
  • Valerie Androutsopoulos - July 12, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Thanks for your comment William. I agree with you whole-heartedly. It gives me hope when I read comments like yours and Sedona Recycles. Most days I feel it’s a loosing battle.

    Reply

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