Recycling is piling up in the United States because China does not want more
11 juilelt 2018
In recent months, the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Recycling Plant has a problem: it has to pay to get rid of the paper and plastic it sorts, instead of selling it. Because China does not buy anymore, saying that they are too "contaminated".
The 900 tons of recycling spilled by 24 dump trucks on 24, five days a week, on conveyor belts at the Elkridge plant, one hour from the US capital, are certainly not clean.
In an infernal mechanical din and a cloud of brown dust, dozens of gloved and masked workers, mostly women, remove from their expert hands a bazaar of rubbish, clothes, wooden objects, cables, tree branches. and the obsession with recyclers: plastic bags, which are not supposed to go into the bins to recycle because they get tangled in the machines.
The goal is to "decontaminate" to the maximum, that is to say on the one hand to strictly separate recyclables from non-recyclable waste, on the other hand to ensure that the final batteries of plastics, paper or cardboard contains no other material.
"We even had to slow down the machines and hire more people" to better decontaminate, says the manager, Michael Taylor.
At the end of sorting, large cubes of compacted waste (paper, cardboard, plastics ...) are produced. This waste has been purchased for decades by companies, mainly in China, who cleaned, milled and re-processed raw materials for industrialists. These importers closed their eyes when the plastic balls were too dirty or were not "pure" enough.
China, last year, bought more than half of the recyclable waste exported by the United States. Globally, since 1992, 72% of plastic waste has ended in China and Hong Kong, according to a study published in Science Advances.
But since January, Chinese borders have closed to most of the paper and plastic, a consequence of a new environmental policy in Beijing ... Chinese leaders saying they want to no longer be the trash of the planet, or even its dump.
For the rest, including metal or cardboard, Chinese inspectors have set a contamination rate of 0,5%, too low for current US technologies that can not sort the waste so accurately. The industry expects that almost all waste categories will be rejected by 2020.
- Brutal transition -
In Elkridge, the factory still sells its PET (plastic bottles) to a buyer in South Carolina, and its carton abroad. But mixed paper and plastic are worthless: it pays subcontractors to take them back.
Elsewhere in the United States, recyclers have resolved to a taboo act: they no longer sort the plastic and paper, which end up in landfills.
"Nobody wants to say it out loud because no one likes to do it," says Bill Caesar, head of WCA, a Houston-based company.
The American giants Republic Services and Waste Management have acknowledged having done punctually, as in Oregon. Small towns, especially in Florida, simply canceled the recycling collection.
The other importing countries, Indonesia, Vietnam or India, are unable to absorb the tens of millions of tonnes that China imported. And few American industrialists have the technology to process these materials.
"China has given the industry too little time to adapt," says Adina Renee Adler of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a large professional federation.
"We will soon have so much inventory that we will have to put more and more in landfills if we do not find new markets," said Darrell Smith, president of the National Waste and Recycling Association.
- More and more expensive -
The problem is beginning to be felt in cities when renegotiating municipal contracts. Especially since many cities have ambitious recycling targets - like Washington, which wants to go from 23% of household waste to 80%.
The capital is already paying 75 dollars to recycle a ton, against 46 dollars for garbage, which is burned to generate electricity.
"There was a time when it was cheaper to recycle but it's not the case," says Christopher Shorter, director of public works in Washington.
"Recycling is going to cost us more and more money," he warns.
To avoid financial penalties, the city wants to "educate" its citizens so that they stop putting in the blue bin the bad waste, such as plastic bags.
To reduce the amount of waste to be recycled or burned, she is considering the collection of organic waste, with a future third bin, and the construction of a composting plant. And she thinks to make pay the inhabitants to the weight of waste.
Even with these measures, Bill Caesar, in Houston, warns all Americans: it will soon pay more for "the privilege of recycling".