U.S. Recycling Begins Infrastructure Development to Solve China Crisis

PHOENIX – U.S. recycling has nearly collapsed, prices have soared and the environmental waste problem has hit a crisis point, since China, the largest buyer of U.S. recycled products, stopped buying nearly 18 months ago. Now, recycling centers are looking to rebuild processing plants across the U.S. and that requires a policy change and millions in new funding.

A $2 trillion infrastructure bill did not make it through Congress this year. It died in April and along with it, a plan to fund big projects across the country like upgrades to highways and bridges, building out broadband service in rural areas, and modernizing U.S. recycling plants so that domestic centers can become the processor that China once was.

“We’re asking for $500 million over five years that would be appropriated to EPA that the EPA would then distribute to the states and the states would then provide it to eligible entities,” said David Biderman, Executive Director of SWANA, the Solid Waste Association of North America. Part of his job is to advocate for federal funding. Now that the infrastructure bill is dead, this funding ask is through something called the RECOVER Act.

“You know, local governments are primarily going to want money for educating their citizens on how to recycle right, on how not to put plastic bags in the bin. I don’t think local governments are going to go out and get millions and millions of dollars. The funding simply isn’t going to be available,” he said.

A forklift driver moves bales of sorted recycled material while a conveyor belt delivers unsorted material to the people who will sort it in Phoenix. (Photo by Annika Cline/KJZZ)

RECOVER stands for Realizing the Economic Opportunities and Value of Expanding Recycling, part of a long-term plan to end U.S. recycling’s dependence on China.

“I think that we’re going to see continued reduction in the amount of recycling that is exported from the United States,” Biderman said.

We already are. China dried up. Malaysia and the Philippines tapped out and are refusing to take more from the United States. Even Canada has sent material back.

“Recycling is just hard. There’s not, there’s no federal policy, there’s nothing on the books at the federal level to say how recycling should happen or where it should happen,” said Cole Rosengren, senior editor for the industry magazine Waste Dive. He says long term U.S. facilities face a fundamental shift in recycling operations, one that takes new funding and new policies.

Because waste companies have exported recycling for so long, the U.S. has no recycling infrastructure to do the job here — no set standard from one city to another on what a recycling process is, no regulations and nowhere near enough mills up and running to process the paper and plastic material collected every day.

“It’s worth remembering that recycling, up until seven or eight years ago, was a very expensive proposition. It came into strength in the early ’90s as a result of what was believed at the time to be a crisis in landfill space,” said James Thompson, president of Waste Business Journal.

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A lot of communities relied on the local private waste company to add on recycling services for trash pick-up. And recycling was subsidized, essentially, by the waste contracts, which became very profitable.

“So, you know, municipalities relied on the companies to create those markets and to bear those costs. And they did that by using the lucrative landfill contracts to help that,” said Thompson.

The U.S. recycling industry has been built on a series of individual contracts. Increasingly, those contracts are owned and operated by the largest waste companies, Waste Management and Republic Services.

“They’re doing just fine right now, for the most part, all of these large recycling companies, you know, waste and recycling companies. You know, they’re still taking a hit financially, but a lot of them are doing stellar at the moment. You know, landfills are quite profitable. Waste collection, you know, running trucks, is very profitable,” said Rosengren.

According to Waste Business Journal, U.S. waste and recycling was a $74 billion industry in 2018. Publicly traded companies, including Republic Services, make up 60 percent of that industry — a percentage that is expected to grow over the next decade. Rosengren says it is up to each city right now to find its own solution.

“City of Phoenix did utilize, for example, a no-interest loan from one of the big investment arms that’s out there for recycling money to upgrade their recycling facility. And so when cities do own or have a stake in their own sorting infrastructure. That’s probably where you’re going to see a lot of the money,” Rosengren said.

Twenty-one domestic mills across the U.S. are on pace to be up and running by 2021. So far, none are in process in Arizona.

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Amid Recycling Crisis, Chinese Company Reinvigorates U.S. Paper Industry

PHOENIX – The U.S.-China trade war has crushed the packaging products industry over the last several months. There is no relief in sight for business owners paying the bill. Last Friday, the Trump administration announced increased tariffs on several products, including packaging, to 25 percent. And Monday, China announced retaliatory 25 percent tariffs starting June 1, that also hit paper products.

For western cities like Phoenix, which have been wholly dependent on the U.S.-China relationship to fully process recycled paper, the trade war is not really about trade. It’s about business and a hard lesson in how U.S. and Chinese business owners must work together to keep one industry alive.

Brian Boland is a paper guy. He started in paper in 1995, and he’s seen things change dramatically.

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“People hear that you have got foreign investment coming into the United States, but one thing to remember again, to see growth, and to see investment in these facilities that have been here literally since the late 1800s, it creates jobs. It’s really, really cool. It’s really powerful stuff. And regardless of who owns the thing, that investment is a good thing.”

Brian Boland is vice-president of government affairs and corporate initiatives at ND Paper. Boland started in paper in 1995 in Michigan, just out of school. He’s at ND’s Ohio office. He says his plant sounds just like any other U.S. plant.

Boland’s mill had been shut down for decades, now bought and renovated by ND Paper, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Nine Dragons Paper Holdings, the largest paperboard company in China and one of the largest in the world, with more than 15,000 employees worldwide, including those like him, in its newly developed U.S. operations.

ND Paper has been quietly buying up closed down U.S. paper mills, starting with those previously owned by Catalyst paper, the Canadian company that still owns the shuttered mill in Snowflake.

With an ongoing trade war with China, these buy-ups and buy-outs are making industry insiders nervous, understandably. But, businesses owners say the industry needs to be saved by its operators.

“When I say the business model is broken in the U.S., it is broken,” said Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services, the second-largest waste company in the U.S., based out of Phoenix.

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“Eighteen months ago, cardboard was trading for around $150 a ton. Mixed paper and other paper products were trading for around $100 a ton. Cardboard today is trading for about $50 a ton, and those other paper grades are trading for around zero.”

Seventy-five percent of Republic Services’ business is dependent on paper. Keller says a lot has changed in the last year.

“I would say this, relative to recycling. If the material that’s being recovered and aggregated and ultimately marketed isn’t going back into a manufacturing process, isn’t getting reintroduced as some other product, then it is not recycling,” he said.

Prices in the U.S for recycled cardboard are at a decade low since China stopped buying the U.S. product. In January 2018, China established its National Sword policy, an effort to clean up its own environment and reduce pollution. That included drastically changing its import policy on recycled paper, in addition to tariffs on paper products. The global recycling business went into a tailspin, hitting recycled paper particularly hard.

“Those products are not selling at the price they used to and in some cases, people are paying to move their paper. It’s affecting municipalities, a lot of operations in terms of the revenues they are accustomed to receiving from selling recycling are not there anymore and so those shortfalls, for example, in Phoenix, those shortfalls in budget are are things we have to make up,” said Joe Giudice, assistant public works director for the city of Phoenix.

China consumes approximately one-quarter of all global paper products. About a quarter of their consumption has been imported, since China does not have the natural resources to keep up with its population. In 2017, China imported 26 million metric tons of scrap paper. In 2018, that dropped to 15 million metric tons — 2019 is on pace to drop even more.

Giudice said the solution to the trade problem is not trade negotiations, but with U.S. mills which need to produce cleaner products across the U.S. The mills being bought and renovated by Chinese-owned ND Paper already do, since they produce paper pulp, a finished product that is contaminant free and can be exported to China as is, even with an added tariff.

“So essentially, they are making their new cardboard boxes or products here in the United States and then shipping them back to China to put the toys and other products that they are manufacturing that are then going to get back in the box and go back to the United States or wherever else people are buying them from, so it’s this very unique international trade situation going on there,” Giudice said.

Mailbox or Wastebin? One Reporter’s Quest to Stop Junk Mail Forever

LOS ANGELES – I’m that grocery shopper who pulls up to the EV charging spot, walks in with my reusable bags for the bulk section and inevitably causes confusion when I ask the butcher to put my ground turkey directly into my glass container.

Every couple weeks, I drive all my rotting banana peels and broccoli stems to a community garden three miles from my apartment, where they’re composted.

It takes a week for my husband and I to fill up our two-gallon trash can and our eight-gallon recycling bin.

But despite putting so much effort into not creating waste, into being the best recycler I could be— there was one thing that I couldn’t seem to stop. Junk mail.

The two-for-one pizza deals, supermarket discounts and persistent credit card offers were getting out of hand. Several days a week, I’d find them crammed into my tiny apartment mailbox—which nearly exploded everytime I opened it.

The Los Angeles Department of Public Works estimates that about 100 million trees are cut down annually to make direct marketing advertisements and Americans spend an average eight months of their lives sifting through it.

And sure, recycling is great, but that paper can only get reused 5 to 7 times before it’s not useful anymore.

My junk mail was wasting my time, the trees and somebody else’s money. I decided to embark on a quest, to go where no man had gone before— to end my junk mail for good.

So I started with some research.

Direct marketing mail makes up more than half of my recycling bin. (Photo by Caleigh Wells/LAist)

Why Direct Mail Marketing Still Exists

In the digital age, paper mail feels old-fashioned. With all the robo-calls, spam emails and pop-ups, I figured no one even looks at their junk mail – but I was wrong.

Mark Pitts of the American Forest and Paper Association is the man in charge of any paper used for printing or writing across the United States.

He told me that companies still use paper because it keeps customers engaged: “They call it junk mail but the reality is, people read it.”

Even in the digital age, Pitts said that paper provides the highest return on investment. And, despite the logical assumption that younger people are more averse to physical spam, it turns out that millennials engage with junk mail just as much as baby boomers.

“The millennial generation actually had better recall on print advertising,” she said, “Because their attention span is very short in the digital space.”

As for how that mail ends up in any particular mailbox, Senny Boone from the Association of National Advertisers said people could be subscribers, recent purchasers, or … they could just live in the right zip code.

“It might be that there’s a very nearby Pizza Hut in your area, so they want everyone in the area to know about it because it’s local advertising,” she said.

After speaking with the experts, it was clear that junk mail wouldn’t stop itself….but could one person stop the junk mail?

Turns out it was about as complicated as it sounds.

I decided to tackle the problem in steps, by category of junk mail, starting with the worst kind.

Step 1: Credit Card Offers

OptOutPrescreen.com can stop the credit offers for free, forever. (Photo by Caleigh Wells/LAist)

Ever since I started making payments on my first credit card in college, the credit offers kept coming. And coming.

That’s because the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) lets consumer credit report companies (think TransUnion, Equifax, Experian) put names like mine on lists that creditors use to determine who they want to see their insurance and credit offers.

Enter OptOutPrescreen: the FCRA’s option to stop getting (or sign up for) those offers. You can opt out for five years by filling out a form online, or do it permanently by mailing that form to their opt-out department in Atlanta. (Editors note: Submitting your Social Security Number is optional. The opt-out request goes through with just your name and address.)

It takes five days for the consumer credit report companies to remove your name from those lists, but it might take longer for the offers to stop coming through. That’s because companies might have created offers for you that just haven’t been sent out yet.

Filling out the form probably took about 90 seconds.

Step 2: Catalogs

The ads made up the vast majority of the week’s direct marketing mail. (Photo by Caleigh Wells/LAist)

These are the Postmates and Walgreens deals that arrive at your house via flyers, or actual catalogs, for the online-shopping averse.

The hard way to get rid of this kind of junk mail means contacting each company individually.

I took the easy way and signed up for DMAchoice, which is the closest thing to a one-stop junkmail stopper the internet has to offer. There, I took my name off catalog and magazine lists, and unsubscribed from hundreds of other companies’ offers.

All that convenience only cost me a $2 processing fee. And the website says I’ll stay off the mailing lists for 10 years.

Association of National Advertisers now owns the DMAchoice service. Boone said the service was born after the industry decided in the 1970s that consumers should be able to reduce unwanted mail.

“Certainly from the consumer’s perspective they don’t want to get unwanted mail that’s not relevant to them,” he said. “For the business side, they don’t want to send mail to people that don’t want it because there’s a cost there.”

Boone said once consumers register, their name is added to a suppression file that businesses can access when they’re getting ready for their next campaign.

Unsubscribing from the suppression file took two minutes to do. But I haven’t seen results here yet – DMA says it could take as many as 90 days to stop receiving those offers.

Step 3: Bills, Bills, Bills

For years now I’ve gotten credit card statements and utility bills in the mail. This might not count as junk mail, but it was still going into my recycling bin unopened, because I found it easier to pay online.

It turns out that all of the companies that bill me have an option to go paperless. A 10-minute search through account settings and FAQ pages provided the instant gratification I was looking for.

After my next billing cycle, I shouldn’t get any more of these. Victory!

Step 4: Return to Sender(s)

Writing “return to sender” or “not at this address” on envelopes that aren’t addressed directly to you and putting it back in the mailbox can sometimes do the trick. (Photo by Caleigh Wells/LAist)

Now we start entering the more time-consuming battle of the junk mail war.

But it’s worth the effort— this has definitely been the most satisfying part of cleaning up my mailbox.

I found out that you can throw envelopes right back into the mailbox, and write “Refused, return to sender” on them, if those envelopes say one of the following phrases:

  • Return service requested
  • Forwarding service requested
  • Address service requested
  • Change service requested

You can also write “return to sender” or “not at this address” for any mail addressed to someone else (and if you live in an apartment like I do, that makes up a significant chunk of junk mail).

Another victory.

Step 5: Tying Up Loose Ends

There are still companies that have used other resources to get my address. I’ve signed up for more than one mailing list in my life to get 15% off my first order. I still get alumni magazines, and my alma mater likes to remind me that it’s always willing to take more donations before the fiscal year ends.

But I found a (possible) solution. A simple google search led me to PaperKarma, a free phone app that claims to make unsubscribing easy. The user takes a photo of the unwanted mail, types in their name and address and hits the unsubscribe button. Then the app gets it done in the next business day.

The app will unsubscribe from four services for free. After that I’d have to pay $2 a month or $20 per year for unlimited unsubscribe requests, which I’m not willing to do – yet.

PaperKarma’s app also says it still takes one to three mail cycles before the unsubscribes start working, so I’m still waiting to see results.

So Was It Worth It?

The short answer is… maybe?

A week later, the credit card offers have definitely slowed down and the paperless bills are soon to be history.

As for the catalogs and donation requests, the jury’s still out. I hear some companies are more challenging to break up with than others.

So if you really want to know if my attempt was a success, ask me in two months.