The USA is starting to drown in its own waste! As you may know, the USA is one of the largest exporters of recyclable waste in the world. About 50% of all US recyclable waste is exported abroad. Foreign companies buy American waste to reclaim and then sell the materials within. Of the 50% exported, about 90% of that fraction was sent to China. Up until recently.
At first glance the relationship was quite remarkable: one might say it was the perfect consumer cycle. China would manufacture products and sell them to the US. When the time came for these products to be trashed, China would buy back the junk and recycle the materials to make new products that China would then sell back to the US. Seems quite sustainable doesn’t it?
The reality, however, was quite different. China was struggling to recycle its own waste, let alone recycle the waste from other nations. In fact, only a small percentage of the imported waste was being fully recycled. In early 2018 the Chinese put restrictions on waste imports and focused their energies on fixing their own waste management systems. That decision was the right choice for China to make, but it pretty much killed the US waste export industry.
As a result of China’s decision, the US has been forced to increase its recyclable waste exports to other countries, such as India, Indonesia, Taiwan & Vietnam. However, these countries do not have the kind of infrastructure needed to manage the quantity and complexity of e-waste. As a result, these countries have now become saturated with waste they can’t recycle, their docks have exceeded capacity and their governments, like China, have restricted the flow.
It is important to understand that China is not saying they will not take US waste. They are actually saying they will only take recyclable waste that has less than 0.5% contamination. This means they only want waste that does not need cleaning and so can be recycled with minimal effort and maximum profit. Does that mean that the US just has to clean up its exports? Well the short answer is yes, but when it comes to e-waste the situation is more complex. Plastics from e-waste are usually treated with flame retardants and China, along with some other countries, see that as an unmanageable contaminant.
What does this mean for the US? In some States wavers are being issued that allow recyclers to dispose of their waste into landfills until a different solution is found. It is at this point that the US has started looking away from developing countries like China as a place to process waste and instead started to focus on developed 1st world nations to find ideas about managing waste. One of those 1st world countries is Sweden. Who would have thought that Sweden, of all places, has been nailing recycling for decades? In fact, the Swedish waste management solutions are so good that they even manage billions of tons of waste collected from other European countries. It transpires that just 1% of trash in Sweden ends up in a landfill site. Furthermore, their country has made billions of dollars managing waste cleanly!
The Swedish model is quite fantastic. It started back in the 1970’s and over 50 years has resulted in some cutting-edge approaches. First, the Swedish materials separation and reclamation technology is spectacular at sorting and recycling. Second, all waste that cannot be separated & recycled is sent to super furnaces that generate energy more cleanly than conventional power stations. One furnace provides an entire city with electricity and heating. The furnace technology is specially designed to remove toxins using a process of superheating the fumes and then washing them. This clean energy does not come cheap: a furnace plant costs $500m to build and $35m to run each year. Seems like a lot of money to invest, but it is actually very profitable and generates $75m a year from income derived from energy and from waste management.
Using the Swedish model means you get paid to take other nations waste, you make money from reclaiming paper, plastic, glass and metal and in addition you also make money from the production of energy. Given the US has a phenomenal reputation for leading edge business ideas, it is simply amazing that America is not dominating this industry. How crazy would it be if the US followed the same model as Sweden and rather than being the largest exporter of waste became the largest importer.
The global waste market was estimated to be worth $500 billion in 2015. If each State invested $1bn into copying the Swedish model then they would be the world leader at importing and recycling within 48 months. It would generate jobs, a stronger materials export economy and cheaper, cleaner energy. Providing funding is put into developing the US recycling infrastructure there is no reason why the US cannot lead the world. Losing the ability to recycle US waste in China might just have been a blessing in disguise. The question is this: who is going to authorize the investment and who has what it takes to get such a project started?