Chicago area recycling industry struggles after China bans waste imports

Mixed paper was one of the primary exports to China. Now, Chinese paper imports are down one third, and US recyclers have to find new facilities to send their paper for pulping. (Lucia Whalen)

By Lucia Whalen
Medill Reports

Before China halted the importation of plastic and other recycling waste from around the globe, the majority of Americans were living in a fool’s paradise. For most people, recycling ended at dumping paper, plastic and glass in a large bin – blue in Chicago. From there, most people paid little attention where the stuff landed.

That all changed in 2018, when China implemented its “National Sword Policy,” implementing strict restrictions on waste and metal imports coming in from other countries. China’s plastic imports are now down by 99%, with paper imports down by a third. Suddenly recycling is front and center in the news, and the public is more aware of the fact that their recycling was, in fact, being exported to another country, and that suddenly the world was facing a crisis in waste.

“China, the biggest buyer of scrap material from the U.S., stopped buying and the tariffs came in.  You have the biggest buyer of scrap material saying, ‘We’re done. We don’t have enough mills to process the materials we have now,'” said Joshua Connell, a managing partner at Lakeshore Recycling Systems. “China was the biggest buyer of our plastic commodities and now they’re not buying from us anymore. We have too much supply and not enough demand in North America for that supply,” China’s ban on plastic and other recyclable waste importation has had severe impacts on local waste economies throughout the United States, including in the Chicago area. Not only is there now an excess buildup of plastics and mixed paper, without adequate processing facilities, but recycling facilities have taken a major economic blow.

Lakeshore Recycling Systems, one of the major management services in the Chicago area, has experienced the blow of China’s ban. Understanding the effect of the ban, said Connell, comes down to simple economics.

“It’s supply and demand. That goes for plastics, mixed paper, and cardboard. Cardboard went from a high of about $200 per ton a few years ago, to right now where it’s $25-30 a ton for cardboard,” Connell explained.

So, the challenge lies not only in the fact that China stopped accepting materials, but that the country was purchasing recyclable materials for extremely high prices. The prices cannot be matched in the United States.

Because China was the primary processor of plastics and mixed paper, infrastructure is not in place within the United States to manage that same amount of waste. So now with nowhere to send the plastics of the United States, companies have nowhere to send the glut of plastics and paper.

“Here in Chicago, we’ve got good infrastructure for glass recycling. But when you look at the infrastructure we used to have for the paper mills, they couldn’t compete with China. So many of them over the last 25 years have closed down because they just can’t compete on price. And so now we’re trying to get those mills back up and running. But when I try to talk to some of the larger companies that are in the processors, do they build more mills or are we one tweet away from opening up the doors of China and here they spent all this infrastructure and now they can’t compete with China again,” Connell said.

China’s “National Sword Policy” has brought to light the sheer volume of waste produced in the United States and made way for a conversation about overconsumption and the problem with the current system of recycling in Chicago. While plastic production continues to increase exponentially, as different types of plastic packaging continue to be made by manufacturers, US recycling rates remain abysmal, with only 9% of plastic in the United States going to recycling, 12% is incinerated and 79% going to landfill.

One of the drivers of this poor recycling rate is lack of education on the part of consumers, who often assume that anything plastic can go into recycling. Amazon’s new lightweight plastic mailers are an example of this. Because recycling center infrastructure is not designed to sort the mixed plastics in the mailer, they are clogging up recycling facilities and going to landfills. Amazon mailers can be seen scattered throughout the landfill pile at Lakeshore Recycling.

Bill Kenney, the municipal manager at Lakeshore Recycling, is responsible for community education surrounding recycling. According to Kenney, for recycling to improve, responsibility needs to be taken by both consumers, haulers, and manufacturers.

“As a hauler, we need to make sure we are educating as much as possible. The recycling industry is always fluid. If haulers are not providing the proper outreach and marketing tools, it’s tough to fault consumers for not making informed choices and decisions when it comes to effective recycling steps. Manufacturers bear the responsibility for creating products/packaging that is simpatico with single-stream recycling, and product labeling that will make it clear on how that item should be recycled,” Kenney said.

“Consumers also play a large role. There has to be a buy-in from the end-user. They have to be willing to understand that they also share in the responsibility to avoid bad recycling habits – especially contamination. One of the toughest battles haulers fight is indifference. In the final analysis, the customer is the one that has to make the decision to responsibly direct an item to the right recycling cart or container,” Kenney said.

Lack of education and constantly changing packaging from manufacturers has led to improper recycling and increased waste in landfills. The new lightweight plastic Amazon mailers block up recycling at Lakeshore Recycling. Here they sit in the landfill pile. (Lucia Whalen)

Karen Rozmus, the former environmental services manager of Oak Park and current Region 9 Director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, agrees that consumers, haulers, and manufacturers have a shared responsibility to recycle properly and improve rates.

“Haulers, when markets were good, said ‘We’ll take it all, we want it.’ And with residents, their mindset is: ‘We don’t want to throw anything away.’ So they make the decision” to recycle materials when they don’t really know they belong in recycling, Rozmus said.

That decision to throw questionable materials in the recycling is called “wish-cycling,” a term that refers to the practice of throwing questionable items into the recycling with the hope that it will get recycled.

According to Kenney, “wish-cycling” creates major problems, as items that cannot actually be recycled contaminate recycling facilities and end up in a landfill.

“’Wish-cycling’ and noble intentions are a big problem in the industry. This can be avoided through better product marketing,” Kenney said, adding that manufacturers have the responsibility to both create packaging that is recyclable and to make the disposable nature of products clearer on the packaging.

While Chicago struggles with a low recycling rate – one of the worst rates for big cities in the country – municipalities around Chicago are working to improve recycling and divert as much waste from landfill as possible through recycling. Highland Park, which gets its waste hauled by Lakeshore, is recognized for its progressive sustainability initiatives and successful recycling program.

One of the primary reasons for the city’s success is a robust communications plan focused heavily on education and helping people understand what can and cannot go into a recycling container, according to Rob Sabo, HIghland Park Assistant City Manager.

Sabo and the city work to inform residents on proper recycling protocol, as lack of education is one of the main causes of contaminated recycling streams.

“One of the biggest challenges that many municipalities face throughout the region, and I think it’s just a matter of getting people away from the practice, is people who place recyclable products into plastic bags and then place those plastics products into the recycling container,” Sabo explained. “We are heavily promoting not using plastic bags in recycling containers. Lakeshore has reported to us that if they see a tied plastic bag in a recycling container, that whole bag is pulled out and put into landfills. And because of the detrimental effect on their equipment, they don’t have the ability to sort out plastic bags before they get deposited into their sorting facility.”

Highland Park’s communications program includes social media posts, a weekly electronic newsletter and printed newsletter, along with a highly trafficked municipal website. But one the best ways to get in touch with residents is in person at community events, Sabo said.

“We actually use our special events, for instance, our Food Truck Thursdays event, to have volunteers go out and police our waste bins and help people sort out their trash. Not only are we making sure we have clean waste streams out of that event, but we are also getting an opportunity to talk to residents,” he said.

In a small community, getting out and interacting with people is an important way to engage with the community, as well as create champions among residents who then share the message, he said.

Photo at top: Ever since implementing the ban on waste importation, paper imports are now down by one third in China.