In January 2018, when China enacted its “National Sword” policy banning the import of recycled plastics and other materials, the U.S.’s primary market for recyclables was shut down. Up until then China’s recycling processors had been handling nearly half of the world’s recyclable waste (which included 56 percent of U.S. recyclables along with another 32 percent of U.S. recyclables sent to China via Hong Kong). As a result of the ban, more plastics in the U.S. are now ending up in landfills, incinerators or by the side of the road. As newspaper and magazine headlines report the decline or halting of U.S. community recycling programs, the primary message people may be getting is that recycling is no longer a viable way to minimize solid waste. That has committee chair Wendy Carr and the rest of the St. George Solid Waste and Recycling Committee worried.
“Right now people are reading all these negative articles about recycling and thinking, ‘Why should I recycle?’” Carr says. “Each town has to look at its own situation, but for St. George it is still an important part of our waste management strategy—recycling is still working for us.”
The chief reason this is so, says Carr, is “cost avoidance.”
“When we don’t ship plastics and other materials to recycling facilities, we have to pay the transportation fees and tipping fees to deposit that refuse in the Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock, northwest of Augusta,” Carr explains. “Because of today’s bad markets for recyclables we aren’t always making much or any money on the materials we send out for repurposing, but we are still saving money by cost avoidance because we are not paying landfill charges.”
Avoiding having trash go into a landfill is key, Carr believes, not only because of the costs involved, but also because of the environmental impact. “From my point of view, landfills always fail, they have a life span, and even though technology is getting better and better about encapsulating waste, the idea that on our planet the waste that we are generating is entombed somewhere, we’re using up our space and eventually those landfills leak the chemicals from that waste.”
Innovative technologies for dealing with trash such as anaerobic digesters where bacteria are used to break down the waste may be able to deliver better environmental outcomes, but for St. George the difficulty is both volume and transportation. “We are treated like an island,” Carr notes. “Innovative trash or waste disposal schemes don’t want us because of the transportation costs. They have something they call route fulfillment and all that means is that if they are going from A to B, they want to stop at a number of towns. But when you go down the peninsula there’s nowhere to stop except for us.” If St. George produced a greater volume of solid waste the transportation cost might be worth the trip, but not otherwise.
The upshot is that for St. George, recycling is the only way to get the cost and environmental benefit of reducing the amount of solid waste the town sends to the Norridgewock landfill. The cost-avoidance benefit alone, Carr estimates based on 2018 numbers, is about $117,000 (1,697.24 tons were landfilled and 1,169.287 tons were recycled). And despite the depressing headlines, there are still markets for recycling. St. George’s agent for finding those markets is the Main Resource Recovery Association. Carr admits that a problem in getting top dollar for the town’s relatively clean, hand-sorted material, however, is that St. George often doesn’t have as much material as a buyer would like. Carr takes the example of PET #2 plastic. “Ours is sorted and clean, but we can only provide so much, say two bales. So if the customer wants six bales, they’ll get the rest from a single-stream source, which is not so clean because in single-stream everything is thrown into one big bucket and stuff gets contaminated. So our clean material also gets contaminated and we get a lower price.”
But Carr sees signs that better markets for recycling will emerge. One of these involves Chinese companies affected by the 2018 “National Sword” ban. That ban was aimed at halting the import of “dirty” materials from single-stream sources that were overwhelming Chinese processing facilities. Several of these companies have now announced plans to open new processing plants in the U.S., notably in Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. Partnering with local authorities, they plan to produce clean recycled plastic suitable for manufacturing purposes back in China or elsewhere. In addition, there are signs that U.S. recycling operations have also begun expanding their ability to produce cleaner materials for repurposing.
While she says St. George residents are doing very well at recycling, Carr would also like to see the recycling rate in St. George increase. “The idea is to just give it a try—start with just one thing, like newspapers or milk jugs, and see how that goes. Recycling takes a little thought, a little room. But for us in St. George, it makes a difference. If people care about nothing else, it can at least lower their taxes.” —JW
PHOTOS: Top, Julie Wortman, bottom, Wendy Carr