Each day across the United States about 1,500 shipping containers are packed full of recyclables and trucked to seaports, where they are loaded onto cargo ships and dispatched to China. The recyclables in those containers include metals, plastics, rubber, paper, cardboard and textiles, which are used as raw materials by Chinese manufacturers. As a matter of fact, since 2007 recyclables have been one of the largest exported materials to China.
For years the system worked great. Containers were used to deliver a variety of products from Chinese manufactures to consumers in the United States. Empty containers were stuffed with recyclables and returned to China where the materials would be recycled into new boxes, paper, clothing and other items.
Unfortunately, the quality of the recyclables started to decrease and a lot of the plastics, scrap metal and fiber that was entering China contained too much food, trash and other contaminants. The excess residue could not be recycled and Chinese manufacturers were getting stuck with a big expense to sort out and dispose of non-recyclables in Chinese landfills.
The Chinese government, looking to protect its homeland manufacturers and mindful of the environmental impact, decided it would take action to improve the quality of the raw materials through the enhanced inspection of recyclables that were exported to China. The program, known as “Operation Green Fence,” was formally implemented in February 2013 and was billed as an aggressive inspection effort aimed at curtailing the amount of contaminated recyclables and waste that was being sent to China.
Operations Green Fence did not involve new regulations. Instead it was a way to enforce regulations that were enacted in April 2011. These Chinese regulations, referred to as Article 12, stated: “In the process of importing solid waste, measures shall be taken to prevent it [imports] from spread[ing] seepage and leakage or other measures to prevent pollution of [the] environment.” Chinese officials were quick to showcase some of the abuses that were taking place involving imports and shared photos of garbage, food waste and other substandard material that were shipped under the name “recyclables.”
In the first year of Operation Green Fence, almost 70 percent of all incoming containers loaded with recyclables were subjected to thorough inspections. Once the more strict inspections began, both recyclers and shippers took notice. Shippers had the most to lose, as anyone caught shipping substandard material could have their licenses revoked. Recyclers also were at risk as they could face the financial burden of paying for the return of a container full of non-recyclable materials. While the number of containers that were found to be unqualified for import were very low (about 0.04 percent), it still represented a large number of containers–almost 22,000 in the first year.
Quality issues were not new in the recycling industry. Keep in mind, recycling centers get low quality material from curbside recycling programs and have to deal with a lot of contamination. Paper mills, aluminum smelters and plastic recyclers have long complained about quality issues because it costs money to clean up recyclables at the mill.
As recycling grew and Asian markets were rapidly expanding, there seemed to be a wide open outlet for recyclable materials, and some recyclers took advantage of the situation by egregiously shipping substandard materials to overseas markets. But let’s be honest….Operation Green Fence was as much about economics as it was about the environment.
China had found a way to help its manufacturers lower their costs at the expense of U.S. recyclers. Within days of the launch of Operation Green Fence, the race was on to improve the quality of recyclables in North America and Europe to keep material flowing to China. In the U.S., the owners and managers of recycling centers quickly changed processes, added quality control stations and developed plans to upgrade recycling centers to improve the quality of recyclables.
Today, three years after the implementation of Operation Green Fence, most recyclers are producing a much higher quality material. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in new and upgraded facilities. In doing so, the cost of collecting and processing recyclables has increased due to new equipment, more labor and stringent quality control/quality assurance processes. These additional costs have been, and will continue to be, passed along to municipalities and consumers who are paying more to get rid of their materials.
If the Green Fence did anything, it created an opportunity for the recycling industry and municipalities to evaluate policies and practices and adjust to changing markets. Specifically, it’s time for recyclers to challenge the existing collection and sorting models and take a long, hard look at problem materials to figure out a better way to collect and process materials for recycling.
Plastic bags and glass are two materials that can and should be recycled. However, these materials wreak havoc at recycling centers and therefore we should all agree that it’s time to change the way we collect these items for recycling. Most stores have plastic bag recycling bins near the front door of the store, and consumers can return plastic bags to the stores where they originated. It’s a simple, easy and cost-effective solution. More importantly, the bags don’t get caught in equipment at the recycling center.
Glass bottles are another item for which there is a better way to recycle. Returning glass to stores with the added incentive of a 10-cent or 25-cent deposit on glass bottles makes good business, economic and environmental sense. Consumers can get that deposit back when they return the bottles to the store. And, if the consumer chooses not to recycle, he or she will forfeit their deposit and are thereby penalized for their non-eco-friendly behavior.
Separate recovery systems for hard-to-process items such as plastic bags and glass bottles is beneficial because it keeps items away from facilities where they cause damage. Collecting these items through in-store drop off or with glass bottle deposit programs helps to preserve the economic value of the plastic bags and glass while not impacting the quality of other items.
Keeping “hard-to-recover” recyclables out of recycling centers allows recycling center operators to recover the maximum amount of material and maintain high quality standards for recyclables. And, as the purchasers of glass will tell you, the quality of glass from glass deposit programs is much higher than glass material coming out of a single stream or commingled recycling facility.
China's Green Fence policy has impacted the recycling industry across the globe. Here in the United States, every aspect of recycling continues to evolve. Markets, technology, equipment and economics are constantly changing as costs continue to escalate. But recycling is still a viable way to manage our waste stream. We just have to understand that municipalities, business owners, homeowners and anyone else who wants to recycle is going to be paying much more for the service in the future.
Will Flower is general manager with Winters Bros. Waste Systems in Long Island, N.Y.