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Municipalities across the country are in a recycling crisis.
Last year, China—which has imported 40 percent of America’s waste paper, plastic, glass, meta, and other recyclable materials since the 1980s—abruptly banned the importation of most foreign recyclables. China’s partial ban has sent shockwaves throughout the recycling industry. The market for sorted recyclable paper has collapsed, with prices falling to $18-per-ton from the high of $103-per-ton in 2017. Prices for high-density polyethylenes, the kind of plastic used for milk jugs, have also drastically fallen to 21.88 cents per pound from their peak price of 52.69 cents per pound in 2014.
This has left cities that depended on selling their recyclables to China scrambling to find alternatives.
Cities like Philadelphia have gone from earning a profit selling their recyclable waste to paying $40 a ton for companies to haul it away. This, in turn, has made it more cost-effective for the city to burn nearly half of its recyclables. Similarly, recycling centers throughout Los Angeles County have been forced to close and county officials have incinerated about 20,000 tons of plastic in since 2018. Most of the recyclables, such as plastic, that are not burned, end up rotting in landfills, which, in turn, can increase the level of methane gas that’s released into the environment.
However, New York has been an exception. The city has been able to insulate itself from the impact of the Chinese ban thanks in part to its size as well as the city’s long-term vision that allowed it to build a local recycling infrastructure.
Thank the ‘swamp’
As one of the largest cities in the world, it’s probably not surprising to know that New York accumulates more trash than any other city by far, producing 33 million tons of garbage per year, of which 663,600 tons are recovered for recycling. In preparation for the closure of the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, in 2006 the city developed a Solid Waste Management Plan (or SWMP, affectionately known as the “swamp”), which aimed to reduce the amount of refuse sent to landfills by recycling more, which required creating a guaranteed channel for the seemingly endless river of metal, glass, plastic and paper produced by New Yorkers.
“One thing New York has going for it, more than anything else, is that it has volume. Over the past 30 years, we have collected 13 million tons of recyclable material,” says Bridget Anderson, head of the Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability for the Department of Sanitation (DSNY). “Also, in the early years of New York recycling, we had relatively short-term contracts and we were more subject to the ups and downs of the market as well as the capacity of the vendors. So when we developed the Solid Waste Management Plan, we were obligated as a city to come up with a long -term contract for recyclables. In the end, it made us more stable and helped the city and the vendors weather the storm as it wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Most of the city’s metal, glass, and plastic recyclables and 50 percent of its paper end up at Sims Municipal Recycling plants in Sunset Park, Brooklyn or New Jersey. The other 50 percent of the city’s paper waste is transferred to Pratt Industries’ paper mill on Staten Island, were much of the city’s waste paper is recycled into pizza boxes. Together, Sims’ New Jersey plant and its Brooklyn plant, which claims to be the largest recycling plant in North America, is responsible for processing 500,000 tons of the city’s recyclable material a year.
According to Anderson, in the 20-year agreement the city struck with Sims in 2013, the city agreed to pay $75 per ton to Sims for processing and sorting its trash as opposed to paying the average cost of $100 per ton to send the recyclables to a landfill. For many cities struggling because of the Chinese import ban, the cost of recycling is greater than the cost of disposing of the materials in local landfills. Since the closure of the Fresh Kills landfill in 2001, New York ships most of its nonrecyclable trash to other states totaling $300 million a year, at $129.81 per ton, making the deal with Sims an overall cost-effective solution. It also reduces the carbon footprint associated with disposing of the city’s waste. As an added bonus, when the market value for recyclables is high, the city receives a rebate. As recently as July of 2018, the city received a rebate of $7.25 per ton.
Likewise, in the city’s agreement with Pratt, the city sells much of its paper waste, for about $4 million in annual revenue as of 2019.
“In New York, the disposal of waste is very expensive. By extension, the avoided cost of recycling provided the city with a major incentive even when the markets are not at a high point,” says Tom Outerbridge, general manager of Sims Municipal Recycling. “If you go to parts of the country where the disposal of waste is not expensive, you could imagine it’s a quicker incentive to give up the recycling program.”
Almost all the recyclable material that the city sends to Sims is sold to the domestic market. Although the market for plastics and paper is in a tailspin, access to a nearly endless supply of New York’s trash continues to make Sim’s agreement with the city profitable for the company and cost-effective for the city. The fact that Sims is bound by a long-term contract with the city and that the company was not dependent on the collapsing export market has shielded the city from a similar fate to places like Philadelphia.
“The markets go up and down, so we knew going into long-term contracts there will be fluctuations in the market,” says Anderson. “This, I would say, is the worst of the down cycles we have seen. It’s even worse than we anticipated when we negotiated the contracts. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, but we are more resilient thanks to our deal with Sims.”
A flawed marketplace
China’s partial import ban has lifted the veil to the ugly truth on how dependent the $200 billion global recycling industry is to the exploitative labor practices of the developing world. Beginning in the 1990s and 2000s, to fuel its growing industrial base, China imported 60 percent of the world’s scrap plastic and waste paper. The same shipping containers that entered U.S ports full of goods from China were being sent back full with our nation’s trash.
Most of the paper and plastic was of low quality and unsorted, and the job of sorting it was left to an army of poorly paid workers—making it a cost-effective alternative to a domestic market.
“China sent these big shipping containers with all sorts of goods and they usually left empty. So it was a very cost-effective option for cities, especially on the West Coast,” says Eric Goldstein, senior attorney and New York City environmental director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But, of course, the disadvantage of that approach was that there was no incentive to create domestic markets and the green jobs that would have come with them to remanufacture recyclables into new products. As long as China was willing to take all these low-grade recyclables then everyone could feel good about the situation.”
Ultimately, dependence on the Chinese market turned out to be unsustainable. In 2017, citing environmental and health concerns, China enacted it’s “National Sword” policy that banned the importation of foreign scrap plastic and paper, causing the market for those commodities to plummet.
Yet thanks to New York’s investment in its domestic recycling industry the impact of the ban on the city has remained limited. “Initially, when we heard about what China was doing related to recyclables like metal, glass, and plastic we were somewhat concerned,” says Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, chair of the Sanitation Committee. “It didn’t hit us as hard as we thought.”
But there is still more work to do. Over the next five years, DSNY is hoping to boost its recycling capture rate to 60 percent; right now, 50 percent of possible recyclable trash still ends up in landfills. As part of its ambitious zero-waste by 2030 initiative, the city is also hoping to expand its curbside composting program to reduce the overall amount of waste that is sent to landfills. By reducing the amount of trash it sends to landfills, the city hopes to further reduce its carbon footprint.
“The deal with Sims means that it has been easier for New York to weather the storm, but it’s not like there’s a shortage of work that still needs to be done by the city and the residents,” says Goldstein. “To make recycling a success it should and could be, we need to find additional ways to reduce the amount of contamination we put in our recycling bins. We also need to expand programs that increase the number of home electronics and textiles that get recycled.”
Getting to zero
While New York has avoided the worst effects of the China ban, the changes to the global market are likely to disrupt the city’s progress toward its zero-waste goals.
As the city switches from dual-stream to single-stream recycling, it will collect an even greater amount of recyclable material, and if that occurs during the market downcycle, it will continue to cost the city its rebate.
“The ban is certainly placing some pressure on our recycling program, but we are staying the course. We aren’t changing the program. We are not asking people to change what they put in the bins,” says Anderson. “We still only capture 50 percent of recyclables that could be recycled. For us, it’s important that we double down. We do better when we have a high volume of material for our buyers. The China ban is difficult, but the market will respond. We see this as a medium-term down cycle but it will recover.”
However, others are not as optimistic. “To be perfectly honest, we have been really low in pushing zero waste by 2030. You’ll be hard-pressed to meet anyone who thinks we can get there,” says Reynoso. “But we are trying to build good habits and a good culture related to trash that can get us to reduction in a short amount of time. The China ban put everyone on notice. We need to move away from recycling into reduction and reuse.”
Still, Goldstein believes that the ban is presenting the city and the state with an abundance of new opportunities. “The closure of the China market to recyclables from the United States offers New York an opportunity to create more domestic facilities that could take these recyclables and turn them into new useful products. In the same way, we are closing the loop on recycling, we are avoiding all the pollution impact using virgin materials for manufacturing and are also creating green jobs for New York.”
Correction: The original version of this story said China banned all foreign recycling. In fact, its action had the effect of rejecting most, but not all, plastic and paper recycling.