U.S. states are fighting to keep recycling viable.
Two years ago, China turned the American recycling industry on its head when it stopped accepting millions of tons of its scrap materials. Since then, state lawmakers and departments have been forced to re-examine a system long dependent on sending plastic bottles, cardboard boxes and paper across the ocean.
“You need to have a market and that’s what we lost with China,” said Anne Germain, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the National Waste & Recycling Association, an industry trade group. Up until now, she said, there has been no incentive for anyone to strengthen domestic markets.
Now, states are looking to open up new markets for their recycling products, improve processing infrastructure and create public awareness campaigns to reduce contamination as they search for a more comprehensive—and more domestic—approach.
At least 10 states have passed or enacted legislation this year concerning recycling management. That is on top of another 200 bills introduced this year aimed at reducing single-use plastics.
On the West Coast, where China’s policy shift hit particularly hard, officials from different states started meeting once a month to swap ideas and brainstorm strategies.
In California, the stakes are high. The state’s largest recycling center shut down earlier this month. And about two-thirds of California’s recyclables exported abroad went to China before the restrictions took place, according to CalRecycle, a part of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency that oversees waste management.
“With the loss of international markets, we’re really being forced to look at our own waste now,” said CalRecycle spokesman Lance Klug. “We’re asking some tough questions that we probably should’ve been asking for a long time.”
State lawmakers are trying to push through proposals during the last weeks of the legislative session. Two sweeping, twin bills in the state Senate and Assembly aim to reduce, reuse or recycle 75% of single-use plastics in the state by 2030, create end markets and implement more uniform recycling policies across cities, among other changes. Another bill would raise the minimum percentage of recycled plastic required in water bottles.
Opponents of the legislation worry about the costs, infrastructure and potential impact on consumers.
In 2017, the U.S. exported about 14.5 million metric tons of scrap recyclables to China, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, an industry trade group. That dropped to around 9.4 million metric tons in 2018. Since China implemented its new policy at the start of 2018, U.S. states and cities have felt the brunt of falling prices on certain recyclables. The average price for mixed paper in the U.S., for example, dropped from $67 in August 2017 to negative $2 in August 2019.
Searching for temporary stopgaps, municipalities have sent some recyclables to landfills and stopped accepting certain kinds of plastic or incinerated items.
“The import restrictions recently imposed by China and other countries are not the cause of the challenges facing the U.S. recycling system today; rather, they have brought to light pre-existing issues related to how we manage our recycled materials in the U.S.,” said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In Washington state, officials are in the process of hiring a director for a new Recycling Development Center. Formed under legislation passed this year, the center was designed to strengthen recycling markets and improve processing in coordination with the state’s Ecology and Commerce departments.
“We’re very good at collecting materials but not very good at using those materials,” said Alli Kingfisher, the statewide recycling coordinator at Washington’s Department of Ecology. Washington previously exported more than 60% of its recyclables to China, she said.
Neighboring Oregon’s recycling processing plants have geared up with new equipment and new hires, said Peter Spendelow, natural-resource specialist at the state Department of Environmental Quality. The state pulled together a recycling steering committee focused on improving infrastructure and creating legal frameworks to tackle the issue.
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“Everything’s on the table,” Mr. Spendelow said.
Across the country, Maine could soon require package producers to support recycling programs and cover at least 80% of the cost of packaging materials sold in the state that aren’t easily recyclable. Officials in New Jersey and Massachusetts have focused their efforts on ensuring unwanted materials—like plastic bags, hoses or cookware—stay out of recycling bins.
That is a focus for industry groups, too, as less contamination in recycling systems can make the material more clean and valuable. But it requires significant investment in public-awareness efforts.
Awareness campaigns in Massachusetts have helped decrease noncompliant recycling by anywhere from 30% to 80%, said Greg Cooper, director of hazardous and solid waste at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Massachusetts has provided close to $1 million in grants to 28 communities since 2017 to improve local recycling programs, and last year launched a statewide education initiative.
Creating a new market, however, “is not going to happen overnight,” Mr. Cooper said. “We’re doing what we can do, right now: cleaning up the best we can.”
Write to Jennifer Calfas at Jennifer.Calfas@wsj.com
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