For decades, the US built its recycling program in response to and focused solely on the “supply side,” or working to accept the waste that was being recycled.
Reclaimers in China (along with some other Asian countries) were always at the ready, willing to buy all of our recycled materials and deal with the impurities and contamination that often came with it. This all stopped in January 2018 when China’s National Sword policy went into effect, banning the import of a variety of recycled materials, including most plastics.
The policy threw the entire recycling industry into a disarray, leaving many waste management companies in the position of having to stockpile or even landfill recycled materials.
It has been three years since China stopped accepting many US recycling imports and / or demanding much higher levels of purity in them. In that time, EcoEnclose (along with many other companies focused on building a more circular economy) has (1) increased our focus on buying recycled and domestically sourced content, and (2) suggested that the China ban could actually be a long-term benefit to our ecological progress as it forces us to invest in our own recycling infrastructure and clean up our messes.
Has this actually happened? Have we fixed our recycling infrastructure?
No, not in just three years. But we’d argue that there are a lot of promising signs, signs that suggest the strategy of increasing demand for recycled content “pulls” for dramatic improvements across the entire recycling supply chain.
Before we dive into some of the success stories and data points, let’s take a moment to review what the recycling supply chain includes:
Consumer (or corporate user) → MRF (facility where single stream is sorted into like materials) → Reclaimer / Manufacturer (or part / package / component) → Brand → Consumer (or corporate user)
Recycling is complicated because every player across the chain needs to participate, cooperate and have capacity. Consumers need to recycle at high rates and do so responsibly in order for MRFs to have access to adequate levels of clean inputs.
MRFs need to invest in equipment and people to sort each different material successfully. And they need reclaimers to be ready to buy the product so they profit (or at least break even) from all the work they’ve done to take it in and sort it.
Reclaimers can only buy the recycled products if they have equipment that can break it down and/or remanufacture it, investments they will only make if brands (and the consumers of those brands) are ready to buy it. There are so many “chicken vs egg” dilemmas, which are exacerbated by the fact that the investments required are tremendous, such as multi-million dollar pieces of equipment. These are major risks for individual players in the supply chain to take.
With this complexity in mind, let's take a look at a few trends, data points and success stories that are leaving us hopeful about the progress being made within the US recycling infrastructure over the past three years.
Overall Investment Level: Since July of 2017, 62 major investments (totaling $5.2 billion in value) have been made in US plastics recycling. These investments can divert a collective 3.6 millions of tons of waste from landfills annually.
Partnership and Funding Success Story: Funders and major CPG brands collectively invested $54 million to improve recycling infrastructure and develop new end markets for recycled content in the US. Led by investment firm Closed Loop Partners, participating brands include 3M, Coca-Cola, Colgate Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health, Keurig, Dr. Pepper, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and the Walmart Foundation. This strategy is a powerful one as it recognizes how important it is for players across the supply chain to work together in order to build a more circular economy.
MRF Success Story: Eureka Recycling (located in Minnesota) is a broad success story. That it was largely unimpacted by the National Sword policy shows that recycling can and does work even without demand from China. They had always run a highly effective operation, with contamination of less than 8 percent. 90 percent of their recovered material goes to markets within their home state, supporting regional growth.
MRF Sorting Technology Progress: A variety of companies are investing in improved sorting technology. AMP Robotics is using AI and robotic arms to more successfully sort materials at the MRF. Companies like Machinex are applying optical sorting technology (once solely used for plastics) to paper waste streams.
MRF and Mill Success Story: Pratt Industries is the world’s largest recycled paper and packaging company. Since 2018, they have established a new paper mill in Ohio and in Indiana, and have expanded capacity at their own MRF. Pratt has shown how vertical integration (operating the MRF, the mill, the manufacturer, and the retailer) can be one promising approach to a more successful recycling supply chain.
Remanufacturing Success Story: Constellium installed a new recycling furnace at its Muscle Shoals, AL in an effort to expand recycling capabilities in North America. This increased the total recycling output by 170 million pounds, or about 5.2 billion additional used beverage cans per year. Today, the Muscle Shoals facility can recycle the equivalent of nearly 20 billion cans per year – almost one-fifth of the cans sold in the United States.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE RECYCLING INFRASTRUCTURE
We hope to see so much more forward progress like the stories listed above!
But we also balance patience with a firm and consistent commitment to increasing recycled content in your goods and supplies.
A 2017 study, “End Market Demand for Recycled Plastic,” from More Recycling found that the most significant barrier to a converter’s use of PCR material was not always price, but was actually an insufficient supply of material at the quality level required.
As a consumer or brand, remember that you may not meet your ultimate recycled content goal right away. There may not be supply available or the technology may not yet be up to par to get you the material you want at maximum recycled content levels.
Focus on the long game, with the ultimate aim of achieving 100% recycled / 100% post-consumer waste while also recognizing that your consistent and unwavering demand will lead to changes and investments over time.
THE ROLE OF POLICY
We also recognize that business and consumer demand alone may not fuel the necessary changes fast enough, and that policy can be an important lever in achieving our long-term vision.
We have been following new legislation that is focused on building a stronger recycling system (particularly the Break Free proposal) and we encourage others to learn about and determine if and how they want to support similar policies.
The Break Free proposal includes components such as: Extended producer responsibility (EPR) to create a financially sustainable collection program and minimize recycled content requirements to improve market demand for