The Air Over There

Is the recycling boom coming at China’s expense?

As I Write This, the Beijing Olympics are halfway over. Everyone who has watched the television coverage has seen the haze in the air. And I suspect that everyone reading this column also read press reports about the extensive steps the Chinese government took to improve Beijing's air quality during the Olympics. Smoggy air looks bad enough, but, just think of the negative publicity if world-class athletes collapse because of world-class filthy air.

All this smog and the efforts by the Chinese to eliminate it got me wondering: Are we doing the environment any favors when we ship recyclables to China?

Exports of used paper to Chinese and other overseas mills fueled recycling's rise in America. Based on paper industry and U.S. Department of Commerce data, at least one-sixth of the paper we collect for recycling goes to China. We also send steel and plastic recyclables there.

The lousy state of the Chinese environment is no secret. Two-thirds of last year's increase in global carbon emissions came from China. Last September, Foreign Policy magazine published “The Great Leap Backward,” which described in detail how China's rapid development has resulted in an “environmental disaster.” This August, Scientific American published an article titled “Is China's Pollution Poisoning Its Children?” The authors showed that children born near a polluting power plant will be slower learners and develop fine-motor skills later than those born after the plant closed.

I don't know if the Chinese recycling industry has done a good job in curbing its greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, EPA doesn't either. In its life cycle assessment of solid waste management and greenhouse gases, EPA acknowledges that its calculations for recyclables, including those shipped overseas, are based on U.S. conditions and that “greenhouse gas emissions associated with the manufacture of a material in China may be higher” than here.

Based on what we know about the Chinese environment, “may be” is likely to be an understatement. Add in the impact of emissions from the ocean vessels and trucks used to get paper to those mills, and the understatement probably gets worse.

Recyclers should care about this. We boast about the many environmental benefits of recycling, while we overlook the fact that those benefits are calculated on the assumption that our recyclables never leave this country. Even worse, we cry havoc over pollution at so-called e-waste recycling operations in China while ignoring the likelihood that other, more “modern” recycling facilities may have their own problems.

I realize how dependent recycling is on overseas markets. The dramatic increase in exports of paper recyclables has resulted in the best, most stable markets that recyclers have seen in years. These strong prices have made the difference between success and failure for many curbside recycling programs.

I'm not saying that we should simply stop shipping recyclables to China or other developing nations. Instead, we should start pressuring overseas mills to meet the same environmental standards as U.S. mills. We should insist that the same climate change restrictions that apply to U.S. power plants, industrial facilities and trucks should apply everywhere in the world. Anything less makes a mockery of our belief that recycling makes the world a better place.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected].

By Chaz Miller
The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.