U.S. companies that collect waste for recycling are weighing higher prices and other changes to their operations since China upended the industry when it stopped accepting a majority of the scrap material Americans have been shipping there for decades. E-Scrap, a Resource Recycling publication, reports that while the recycling relationship between the U.S. and China was hampered by scrap material restrictions, both countries can help each other.
Industry expert, Chris Cui, director of China Programs for Closed Loop Partners, says recycling companies in China have long played the role of outsource recycling processors for countries such as the U.S. She points out that while Chinese companies have the ability to process materials at relatively low costs, the U.S. is far more advanced in collection and transportation of recyclables. As the trash begins to pile up, American cities are scrambling to figure out what to do with everything they have previously sent to China.
“This is a gap,” Cui said from the stage of the Plastics Recycling Conference and Trade Show, held March 11-13 in National Harbor, Md. The gap can be bridged by connecting recycling operators in both countries, so they can share knowledge and resources.
In fact, many Chinese companies have already migrated to the U.S. and invested in North American processing infrastructure to ensure continued feedstock supply. “A lot of Chinese companies have a lot of challenges when they come to the U.S., culturally,” she said. “You can invest in a plant, but how do you make sure that the management team is up and running? How do you make sure you know how to work with the local state, the local government? How can you identify which area is the best for you to set up your plant? You have to consider the transportation, do you have enough feedstock, if there’s any tax incentive opportunity zone, those are the kinds of value you can add to the Chinese players that are coming over here.”
From an external perspective, the timeline of China’s actions has been well-documented. Cui provided details on recycling inside China, why it became a topic of interest for the government, what the government hopes to do by limiting scrap imports and how that policy fits into wider country initiatives.
The recycling issue is tied to larger Chinese economic trends, she explained. “Currently, the U.S. trash generation is very high compared to in China, but that’s about to change,” Cui said. “In China, with the emerging middle class, the lifestyle will change. We will spend more money on cars, consumer products, so we can see the trash generation per person is going to come up.”
At the same time, China’s recycling rate hovers at a “very low” level compared with the U.S., Cui said, and most material in China is being landfilled. China’s huge population makes it fairly difficult to site landfills in the country, so given the predicted trash generation increases, landfill alternatives have received greater interest. Pushing toward a circular economy system is “of strategic importance to the government,” Cui said. “They’re coming up with a holistic approach to support the development of this sector, for private sector as well as for public sector, as well as for foreign investors coming to China to invest,” she said.