How the China Recycling Ban Changes Commercial Recycling

When you toss a plastic bottle into the recycling bin, where do you think it goes? Most people picture it going to a sorting facility, probably near a garbage dump, where it gets turned into something useful. But if you’re a commercial property owner or facility manager, you know recycling isn’t so cut-and-dried. When it comes to commercial recycling, you’re probably more informed than the average person, but your tenants may not understand recycling until you educate them. After China’s recycling ban went into effect in 2018, you probably found yourself battling with commercial recycling changes and charges. The industry is in transition, and here’s what you need to know about how the recycling ban changes commercial recycling.

Commercial recycling background

For decades recyclable materials have been an exported product in the United States. Other countries, with China being the most common, purchased our waste and recycled materials on their own soil. There have always been ebbs and flows in the market, as you’ve probably seen in the course of your career as a property owner or manager. It should come as no surprise commercial recycling has always been big business, and it will continue to be that way with new regulations and industry changes.

The ban changes everything

China took on much of the world’s recyclable waste, but in July 2017 that came to a screeching halt. If you haven’t read the details, China told the World Trade Organization that the country no longer wanted all the foreign waste coming to its shores. A large part of the problem was contamination that made recycling difficult, resource intensive, and expensive. This caused a scramble in the U.S. because recycling is mandated in many parts of the country. Each year, more than 91 million tons of materials are recycled or composted. And that’s a lot of waste to manage.

To limit the amount of garbage heading into the country, China placed stringent demands on the condition of materials they accept. Unfortunately, most commercial waste companies around the world have found these demands nearly impossible to meet. As a result, recyclables accepted into China—especially plastics—have dropped by as much as 99%.

Recycling solutions

In the short term, you and your tenants are paying the higher cost of shipping and sorting recyclables. But solutions are starting to emerge.  More than a billion dollars is being invested to re-open, expand, or build recycling processing plants in the U.S. Ironically, it is Chinese companies doing the bulk of investment in recycling plants in the U.S. This step will improve the quality of materials that are shipped to China and transformed into new products. In the long term, this may lead to price reductions in the cost of recycling. More domestic recycling facilities means lower shipping costs over time.

Have a plan

So, what about now? New recycling facilities aren’t yet up and running, and in some parts of the country recyclable materials still end up in landfills or incinerators. Before the ban, the U.S. produced 250 million tons of waste produced every year, and 40% of it went to China.

Many of these materials now head to incinerators within the United States. These incinerators often do not have pollution controls in place. Nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and other pollutants enter the air around these incinerators. It’s worth asking your waste provider where your materials are ending up. And speaking of plastics, in the next 10 years around 111 million tons of plastics will need a new disposal option because of the ban. Even though new processing plants are coming online, it could be years before the recycling market stabilizes.

What’s the solution for commercial recycling?

As a property manager or owner, your waste service vendor may have provided you with an interim plan. Perhaps you’ve even suspended recycling. If you’re concerned about where your commercial recycling is shipped, now is a good time to reach out and ask where and how your recyclables are managed.

Since the industry is in transition, waste disposal and commercial recycling services need a closer look. Ask if your recyclables are routed to landfills or incineration. That’s a good first step. But now is also a good time to take a closer look at your overall commercial waste service and contract.

You may find it’s time to review the details and reevaluate your contract based on commercial recycling changes.

We’re here to help.

Investment in commercial recycling plants here in the U.S. will create a solution, but it may take time. At ZTERS, we stay on top of industry trends and we’re proud to partner with property owners and facility managers across the U.S. Call us to find out how we can help you find a commercial waste and recycling solution that works for you across all your locations.