Plastics Recycling, After China

After reading that China, as part of its “National Sword” policy banned low-grade plastic scrap imports in January 2018, I thought that a potential business idea would be to ship the plastic to other developing countries to recycle. I guessed that the reason plastic was shipped to China was for low labor costs, therefore the labor needed for sorting and cleaning plastic must be large, and that other low-cost labor countries with decent infrastructure could be good sites to develop recycling capacity.

What I found revealed that plastics recycling, even with China, was in a deplorable state. As Yale Environment 360 reports:

Even before China’s ban, only 9 percent of discarded plastics were being recycled, while 12 percent were burned. The rest were buried in landfills or simply dumped and left to wash into rivers and oceans. Without China to process plastic bottles, packaging, and food containers — not to mention industrial and other plastic waste — experts warn it will exacerbate the already massive waste problem posed by our throwaway culture. The planet’s load of nearly indestructible plastics — more than 8 billion tons have been produced worldwide over the past six decades — continues to grow. 1

China was basically the dumping grounds for the Western world’s plastic:

Prior to China’s ban, 95 percent of the plastics collected for recycling in the European Union and 70 percent in the U.S. were sold and shipped to Chinese processors. 1

Why? One reason was that return shipping on empty containers from the West to China was cheap. Another reason was that China had low contamination standards. Ironically, “single stream” recycling standards which make it easier for people to put waste in the recycling bin is actually making scrap unusable.

China’s action came after many recycling programs had transitioned from requiring consumers to separate paper, plastics, cans, and bottles to today’s more common “single stream,” where it all goes into the same blue bin. As a result, contamination from food and waste has risen, leaving significant amounts unusable. In addition, plastic packaging has become increasingly complex, with colors, additives, and multilayer, mixed compositions making it ever more difficult to recycle. China has now cut off imports of all but the cleanest and highest-grade materials — imposing a 99.5 percent purity standard that most exporters found all-but impossible to meet.

The Anti-China Bias

At first, I didn’t notice how these articles almost implicitly blamed China for setting ‘impossible’ standards. This Bloomberg Opinion article is an example of one of the worse offenders: China’s War on Foreign Garbage Imported recycling has been a boon for China. So why ban it?

However, after doing more research I realized that these commentators were blind to the human suffering and environmental toll these plastics have wrought on China. They should watch Plastic China, a documentary that screened at Sundance and went viral in China, before being taken down. Wang Jiuliang made his mark earlier with Beijing Besieged by Waste, after he followed a garbage truck to the city outskirts and found them dumping trash at ad hoc dumps. Wang’s heartfelt dismay stands in stark contrast to the Bloomberg Opinion writer’s privileged, haughty disdain:

In 2011, wanting to learn more about how garbage is recycled, Mr. Wang went to California. In one of the biggest waste recycling companies in Oakland, a manager pointed to a truck loaded with containers of plastic waste that was about to be shipped to China. “I’m not a nationalist at all, but somehow his words provoked me,” Mr. Wang said. “Because I saw this junk — dirty and detrimental — going to China.”2

**The shortened, 26 minute media version demonstrates that the systemic pursuit of low cost recycling both drives and hides the exploitation of the desperate. This is the dirty secret of recycling, and I agree with Wang:

“I’m not against recycling plastic waste, I’m all for it,” Mr. Wang said. “But absolutely not this kind of raw method of recycling without protection and producing more pollution. The profit and cost is disproportionate.”2

A short gif of the video’s raw, visceral footage:


original video:

The Future of Plastics Recycling

This report on circular recycling from VC firm Closed Loop gives me hope for a future where recycling isn’t built upon abuse:

There are 4 main types of plastics recycling: purification, decomposition, conversion, and mechanical

What’s exciting is that there are already companies that are generating an operating profit in this sector, with operating margins of 60-70%:

Thus chemical recycling has the potential to be economically viable, though this is highly dependent on the price of oil, as Mckinsey argues in their report:

Third, our analysis suggests that re-converting waste plastics into cracker feedstocks that could displace naphtha or natural-gas-liquids demand—most likely using a pyrolysis process to do this—also may be economically viable, and it is more resilient to lower oil prices, remaining profitable down to $50 a barrel. 3

The Dirty Side of Plastic Recycling

What people need to know is that when you’re throwing plastic away, even in the recycling bin, only 12% of plastic waste is actually put back into the plastics supply chain.The rest is incinerated, dumped in landfills, or lost in unmanaged dumps or leaks. Most regions do not have the capacity to properly sort, clean, and then market their plastic waste.

In the U.S., small town and rural recycling operations have been hit the hardest. While most continue to operate, rising costs and falling incomes are forcing some, like Kingsport, Tennessee to shut down. Others, like Phenix City, Alabama, have stopped accepting all plastics. Places like Deltona, Florida suspended curbside pickup. Residents in municipalities like these now must travel to collection points in sometimes distant locations if they want to recycle. Some are inevitably tossing their recyclables in the trash instead. 1