Trash Talking The Recycling Problem – How America Outsourced Its Recycling Problems To China

America has an addiction it must address! Not opiates or meth. Not even our social media addiction. I’m talking about our addiction to PACKAGING ! America loves packaging! Your order from Amazon comes in a shipping box, which contains a printed box, usually with another box inside, plus cardboard and plastic dividers. Liquids all come in plastic bottles and jugs that sit in landfills for decades after you throw them out. Ameria was drowning in garbage, but we got our act together, started recycling, and solved our own problems! Well… that’s not what really happened. Where did our garbage go? I’m glad you asked!

In the 1960’s and 1970’s pollution was everywhere. Wealthy cities like New York could afford extensive water purification systems. In poor areas, the water was often polluted. Before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970, the Cuyahoga River caught fire 13 times! Back then, the idea that cities could recycle… that citizens would voluntarily separate out their garbage and set it on the curb… was pure fringe-lunatic politics.

But overflowing landfills, toxic waste dumped in the middle of the night, deadly chemicals leaking from garbage dumps into our water supply, and the growth of cities made building new garbage dumps impractical. Then, an incredible coincidence allowed America to outsource its garbage problem.

In the 1980’s China was becoming the “Factory to the World”. America and Europe firms moved factories to China. But China was still building its industrial base. They were not used to elaborate western packaging and needed to build the industries that would supply paper, cardboard and plastic containers.

Even worse, the cargo containers used to ship goods from China to the US all returned empty. China was too poor to buy American goods. Someone, whose name has been lost to time, came up with an elegant solution. Send our garbage (cardboard, paper, and plastic bottles) back to China in those empty containers. China would PAY for these “raw materials”. How about that, there’s money in recycling!

This created a thriving American recycling business. In 2015 recycling generated more than $105 billion and created nearly half a million jobs. Cities could now sell their garbage and offset the cost of a recycling program. New jobs, a clean environment, and economic growth. It was the perfect relationship. Well… almost perfect.

We’ve seen pictures of pollution in China, with air choked with smog and rivers so polluted that they catch fire. When we outsourced garbage (and manufacturing) to China, we also outsourced our pollution problems. China became one of the most polluted places on earth. After years of dealing with pollution, Chinese citizens finally pushed for major changes in Chinese policy. And they succeeded!

A universal rule of economics is that when we are poor, food and shelter are our most important issues. But as we get wealthier, the focus moves to health, quality of life, and your children. Pollution was killing children and sickening millions in China. Just as the creation of the EPA cleaned up America’s water and air, similar organizations in China set about finding ways to clean up their environment.

Which led to the Greenfence initiative, in 2013. The Greenfence would halt pollution before it could enter China. Tough new standards were put in place for recycling. In the good old days, China took almost any form of paper and plastic. 2015 contamination standards limited “contamination” to only 5%, or only 1 in 20 bottles could be dirty.

America sends hundreds of millions of tons of recyclables to China. Most recyclers said that the could not consistently meet these standards. And they were right. Last year, 1,500 containers full of recyclables arrived in China every day, and about a third were rejected and had to return to America at the owner’s cost. A few months ago, the standard increased to 1 dirty bottle in every 200. Similar standards apply to paper and cardboard.

In 2017, the price of recycled cardboard dropped by 17%. Even tighter contamination standards in 2018 will further reduce prices. Lower prices and rejected bales of recyclables has caused America’s recycling “machine” to back up. Storage facilities are filling up, and with no other place to go, more “recyclables” are being sent to landfills. The extra load will not only require new landfills decades earlier than anticipated, the loss of recycling revenue will shut down recycling programs across the nation.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Trump administration is shrinking the size and budget of the EPA. As recycling revenue dry up, cities will soon request state and Federal funding. I doubt they will receive it any time soon.

Because we could outsource, America fell behind China and other nations in recycling technology. We haven’t done much to turn used plastic bottles into new plastic or improve the efficiency of paper recycling. There are a few cities that have plans for incinerators. However, America abandoned large-scale incinerators in the last century when we discovered that burning garbage creates toxins that cause cancer. With even more plastic in our garbage today, incinerators could be truly lethal.

Besides few people will allow new incinerators to be built in their neighborhoods without massive protests. It’s nearly as difficult to get local approval for a new garbage dump. So, we have a bit of a garbage problem. And it’s going to grow quickly.

A little cardboard won’t kill you, but I don’t want it dumped in my neighborhood. Do you?