Most people are familiar with the campaign of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. While the first two R’s have been slow to materialize, recycling has been a mainstay in most communities for a couple of decades. Annually about 3.5 million tons of waste materials are recycled in Virginia. This accounts for just over 40% of the more-than-7-million tons of waste generated annually. The amount of material recycled has held fairly steady over the past several years, as has the amount of waste generated. In 2018, recycling programs across the Nation were upended with China’s withdrawal from the marketplace, no longer purchasing waste materials from the United States.
The Impact of China
For decades, the United States exported much of its recyclable materials to China. Unbelievably, it was more affordable to ship materials from California to China than from one city to another in California. In 2016 there were 4,000 shipping containers of materials being shipped every day! In 2018 China announced their intent to cease acceptance of any foreign waste by 2020. Some initially saw this as a temporary measure, but have since acknowledged it is likely a permanent ban. I had the opportunity earlier this year to see firsthand, in two Chinese cities, their efforts at developing domestic recycling programs. Though in the very early stages, once fully operational the volume of materials that will be generated by their own massive population will negate any need or desire for China to seek or accept foreign materials.
The Virginia Response
In response to these actions and the resulting impact on local recycling programs, the Virginia General Assembly instructed the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) to undertake an evaluation of current recycling programs in Virginia, the implications of the change in the market due to China’s actions, and make recommendations to address issues. The report was released last week and highlights the challenges: Lack of market opportunities, increasing costs, etc. The evaluation also highlights the challenges associated with improper recycling practices by residents resulting in contamination of otherwise recyclable materials, something we have definitely seen locally. In addition, the report highlighted the responses most communities have taken to address these issues: Renegotiated contracts with recycling handlers, reduction of the types of materials accepted, increased costs, education campaigns, and, in extreme cases, elimination of key aspects of programs. Locally, we have seen costs increase, options decrease, and the need for additional educational campaigns to support our recycling program.
The report provides a number of recommendations that include additional educational programs, and economic incentives for the formation of more and better equipment for handling recyclables, and for developing products from the materials.
A Sustainable Future?
Interestingly, it seems we have forgotten to stress the other two R’s: Reduce and Reuse. It was probably never realistic to build a system that relied upon a foreign nation to accept millions of tons of our waste and it is probably no more realistic to believe we will be able to dramatically (and affordably) increase the amount of materials we recycle domestically. We likely need to start getting more serious and creative in how we reduce the waste we create, and how we reuse materials to avoid, for as long as possible, them becoming waste.
-- Bob Cowell