Art installation highlights plastic bottle use

CULVER CITY, California – Ever wonder how many recyclable bottles and cans you consume every year, or what it might look like if you tossed them all into one big pile?

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI), based in Culver City, California, took the latest statistics on how many beverages people buy in plastic bottles, aluminum cans and paper cartons and turned it all into a real-world infographic on Hermosa Beach in California. The numbers are based on data they regularly collect. Their last comprehensive report was in 2013, Bottled Up.

The result, which took five hours to build, was this chart in the sand that looks like two dolphins.

The artwork is made up of 839 containers. According to CRI that’s how many are used each year by the average American.

The numbers depicted represent a grim reality: only 32 percent of these containers are recycled on average, which means 68 percent go to waste.

CRI did the same thing last year, and the numbers are only getting worse. In 2017, the organization reported a recycling rate of 37 percent.

The percentage that are recycled has fallen consistently over the past 25 years, peaking at more than half in 1992 and falling to 32 percent now, according to CRI president Susan Collins.

Why is all this of concern? A lot of plastics end up in the ocean.

We dump 8 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean every year, enough to equal a third the weight of all the fish in the sea in just a decade, according to CRI, which cited the Ocean Conservancy.

If there’s any consolation, it could be this: those of you in California are actually really good at recycling compared to other states. That’s thanks at least in part to the state’s long-standing recycling program that uses the California Redemption Value, or CRV, as a public incentive. That’s the program that allows Californians to get 5 to 10 cents back when recycling a container.

At least nine other states have similar container deposit laws, sometimes called “bottle bills,” on the books. Collins calls these laws “the rockstars of recycling.” Those states include Hawaii, Oregon, California, Iowa, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The states that have those laws often track the number of beverage containers that are recycled.

China ups ante in trade war, imposes tariff that could doom U.S. paper recycling

PHOENIX – Most of the headlines from the trade war between China and the United States have focused on tariffs on aluminum and steel, but China also has placed a levy on recycled paper pulp. While not as well known, the tariff could bankrupt an already taxed recycling industry in the United States.

China’s latest round of retaliatory tariffs against the U.S., announced in August, includes something called “recovered fiber materials,” basically, the recycled paper, newspaper and cardboard that we put in the recycle bin. Trucks collect paper, bundle it at local centers and sell it as bales, mostly to China, to be incorporated into new products. It’s the cycle of recycling. And now there’s a potential tariff on those exports.

“This is a huge impact on the paper business in the United States,” said Baizhu Chen, a business professor at the University of Southern California. “By taking a unilateral position against other countries, imposing a tariff against other countries, the U.S. is causing huge damage on the global trading system.”

The tariff announcement hits a recycling industry already weakened by China’s announcement in January that it no longer would import most plastics and certain other recycled goods from the United States.

“Certainly, the impact has been considerable to us in the first quarter,” said Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability for Republic Services. “So, increased cost, decreased revenue, that doesn’t make for a winning equation in today’s marketplace.”

Since China’s import ban on most U.S. recycled products, municipal recycling programs have spent much of 2018 in crisis mode. And some U.S. cities can’t make it work. Phoenix, though, has had an edge, according to Rick Peters, deputy solid waste director for the city.

Phoenix Public Works Solid Waste Superintendent Chad Hardy oversees production at the 27th Avenue Transfer Station. Phoenix continues to export recycled paper to China. (File photo by Miles Metke/Cronkite News)

“Part of it is the dry climate from Phoenix really makes the materials being dry makes them easier to separate,” he said.

Phoenix has continued to export recycled paper to China during 2018, which has been key to keeping the program profitable. But that all changes with the tariff.

Chen says a tariff is negatively impacting both American and Chinese businesses.

“This will have a big impact in China on the paper industry. They are short of feedstock,” he said. “And all the businesses are thinking about where to get that feedstock and paper if they are short of paper pulp. And also have an impact on the recycling business in the United States.”

China is the top importer of U.S. recycled paper. China imported 2.73 million tons of U.S. cardboard during the first half of 2018 and 1.4 million tons of all other U.S.-sourced recovered fiber. And without China as the buyer of American recycled paper, the future of U.S. recycling is in doubt.

“China’s economy has been booming for so long,” Peters said, “that they developed a huge appetite for our recycled materials so they could turn it into new products and then ship them overseas to us in their shipping containers. And then the next thing you know, it was like 40 percent of U.S. recyclable paper was going to China. And this continued for many, many years.”

Trade between the two countries is not even. Last year, China’s exports of goods and services to the United States totaled about $500 billion, which dwarfs China’s imports from the U.S., which totaled about $150 billion.

“In time, it’s going to take time, probably maybe several years, if China does not go back to buying, it’s going to take several years for demand and supply to get matched back up again to where the price of mixed paper and newspaper goes back up,” Peters said.

Some businesses are not waiting for Beijing and Washington, D.C., to resolve the dispute. China’s largest paper manufacturer has begun buying up U.S. paper mills, which allows it to not only sell directly within the U.S. but also ship paper remanufactured in the U.S. back to China without paying a tariff.

Chen said Nine Dragons probably is the largest paper company in China. It has been importing waste paper from the United States and was considering investing in the United States “to extract pulp from the papers and then sell the pulp into China, which is not in the ban, but now there’s a tariff.”

In May, Nine Dragons bought two pulp and paper mills in Maine and Wisconsin from Catalyst Paper Holdings, a Canadian company that now owns a closed paper mill in Snowflake in northern Arizona. In August, China’s third-largest recycled paper producer signed a deal to acquire a mill in Kentucky.

Both Catalyst and Nine Dragons declined comment on this report.

“So the strategy is coming to invest in the United States, instead of exporting the waste paper directly … they buy the paper mill to process the waste paper and to turn it into the paper pulp. So, theoretically, these are much cleaner, these are not classified as recycled products.”

Arguably, as Chen says, if the new product is not classified as recycled paper, it would avoid a potential tariff.

“So now, instead of processing that in China, and Nine Dragons, for example, those companies, they process the waste paper in the United States,” he said.

And it will be manufactured in a paper mill now owned by a Chinese company, not a U.S one, leaving questions about the future of the U.S. recycling business.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Phoenix hopes to build mill to recycle certain plastics, easing pressure on landfills

PHOENIX – Phoenix may be the first U.S. city to build a mill to remanufacture plastic containers. It’s an effort to clean up one part of a global trash problem that’s been mounting for decades and is only getting worse.

Curbside is where recycling ends for most of us, but for the city, it’s just the beginning of the process.

“Yogurt cups, different things – not the common ones like your water bottles and soda bottles because we have good markets for those – but other types of mixed plastics,” said Joe Giudice, assistant public-works director for the city. He’s has been collecting bids from contractors so Phoenix can remanufacture specific plastic containers into new goods and fuels.

“Phoenix’s approach is, ‘Hey, we want to develop new markets,’ ideally domestic markets, and we want to have something right here in Phoenix,” he said. Proposals were due back to the city on July 18.

It’s been more than six months since China stopped importing most plastic and paper waste from U.S. cities, which it was remanufacturing and selling there. China’s decision, spurred by pollution concerns, has left an immense void. There is no other market in the world as large, that consumes as much as China – not even the U.S. That means the business flow of recycling essentially has come to a stop worldwide, and more paper and plastic are winding up in landfills.

“We’ve produced more plastic in the past 18 years of this century than in the entire century beforehand.”

Adam Freed, Bloomberg Sustainability Desk

In 1950, estimates say, we created 1.7 million tons of plastic. In 2014, the total was 311 million tons, according to Adam Freed, principal at Bloomberg’s Sustainability Desk in New York.

Overfull landfills aren’t the only problem. In a 2015 study, researchers found that 20 countries are responsible for more than 80 percent of the plastic going into the ocean annually.

Odile Madden, a senior scientist with the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, said plastic consumption and use is a cultural problem.

“We had to be taught, after World War II, to throw things away after using it once,” she said. “In fact, there is advertising that suggests, ‘Hey, don’t be stingy … throw that cup away … and just get a new one.'”

In just the past 20 years, there has been a noticeable rise in “convenience plastic”: water bottles, straws and cutlery, used once and thrown away. It’s a key component of America’s throwaway culture.

Freed said even if the recycling industry eventually finds a way to capture more of what can be recycled, there’s still the problem of landfills reaching capacity. Western states have about 20 years left, he said.

“We’ve produced more plastic in the past 18 years of this century than in the entire century beforehand,” he said, “so it’s just been an exponential increase in our plastic production, consumption and use. … Focusing on recycling once you’ve collected it is kind of like taking a Tylenol after you get the flu and thinking you did everything you could to prevent yourself from being sick. You’ve missed the opportunity to wash your hands, to get a flu shot, to be healthy, to avoid other people who are sick. You know that is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how cities can more efficiently and productively collect and manage their waste streams.”

A 2017 comprehensive research study on the history of plastic production says plastics outpace every other manufactured material for the past 65 years.

According to the EPA’s figures, Americans generated 14.3 million tons of plastic waste in 2014, the last year EPA data was made available. Of that, 2.1 million tons, 14 percent, were recycled. But officials from Phoenix, Republic Services and other industry experts put the figure closer to 8 or 9 percent. The 2017 comprehensive found plastic recycling in the U.S. has remained steady at 9 percent since 2012.

According to a report released at Davos by the World Economic Forum, one truck of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean every minute.

Madden says it all comes down to our changing attitudes and expectations of what plastic actually is.

“I’m expecting that container for the soda to be pretty durable, but as soon as I’m done with that soda, I want that container to go away,” she said. “I expect that it will go away. So, it’s a cultural problem, using durable material as if they are disposable and then expecting that they will disappear.”

Just 5 to 8 percent of any consumer plastic gets recycled. The bulk of the remainder gets landfilled, as it has since consumer plastic products became part of society in the 1950s.

Giudice, the public-works director for Phoenix, says building a plastics remanufacturing plant in town is simply about responding to what residents say they want, which is to recycle more.

“The vast majority of plastics that come in have nice domestic markets for those products to made into something else. But these mixed plastics, where we had a market in China, we no longer do,” he said.

Cities stop recycling some plastics, thanks to China

FLAGSTAFF – Americans recycle about 66 million tons of material each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. About one-third of it is sent to China, where for three decades the materials have been used to create new products.

But all that is changing, as China is taking drastic measures to clean up its own heavily polluted environment.

China’s new policies have led cities across the U.S. to adjust what they will accept in their recycling bins – and it means more materials will end up in landfills. In Flagstaff, for example, a new recycling ban went recently went into effect, prohibiting most types of rigid plastic in curbside bins.

“I think that overall, it’s probably a good thing,” said Tom Dietrich, a shopper at a recent farmers market. “If our previous policy was reliant on China being willing to trash their environment to take our stuff, and now they’re pushing back against it in order to make their place better, then good.”

Across the U.S., recycling gets picked up and sorted at a municipal facility. The finished bales of plastics and paper are sold to processors. China has processed roughly half of the world’s plastic and paper recyclables for since the 1980s.

But last summer, Beijing announced new standards on how much trash can be in the recyclable trash it imports. It’s based on the contamination rate, which measures how much non-recyclable material can be in paper and plastic bales. The new policy limits that to almost zero, at 0.5 percent.

Stacy Hettmansperger, a recycling plant manager in Phoenix, points to a conveyor belt carrying paper products ready for bundling.

“You can see there’s pieces of plastic,” she said. “It’s not a perfect system. So you can kind of get a sense of why contamination is a challenge. Oh, see the plastic bags?”

And while American recycling plants adjust to sorting and shipping a cleaner product, China has added to its list of restricted materials. China’s original import ban, filed with the World Trade Organization in July 2017, covered 24 materials. In April, China added 32 products to the list.

“And what China is saying is, ‘We no longer want to be the recipient of all this material,’ partially because the material isn’t always clean,” said David Biderman, executive director and CEO of Solid Waste Association of North America. “There’s a substantial amount of contamination, or garbage, mixed in with the recyclables. But also because, we believe, China has a newfound interest in protecting the environment – its own environment.”

Joe Giudice, assistant public works director for Phoenix, said his city has felt the effects of the changes.

“The impact for us has been that our plant’s operators need to be a lot pickier about the quality of the materials that they are making for sale,” he said. “And in doing so, less material is making it into the sold market than it used to.”

Western cities have been hit especially hard as they use their seaports to send their materials for processing almost exclusively in China.

Blaine County, Idaho, cut its paper recycling program in May. Cities in Colorado, Nevada and Alaska also have shrunk their recycling programs, or in some cases, closed down plants because they can’t meet China’s new standard.

“You know, the short-term reactions are hard to accept in the market where we want to recycle,” Giudice said. “We all want to recycle materials, and it’s hard to hear that plants are having to close down.”

For Giudice and the Phoenix recycling facilities, the solution is to build processors nearby instead of shipping waste plastic and paper to China.

“Like, for example, in Snowflake, Arizona, there was a mill that would buy recycled paper and remanufacture paper, but that mill closed down,” he said. “So the markets in China developed and continued to consume those products and paid the best prices. And over the course of 20 or 30 years, essentially, that’s how the market developed.”

Giudice is in the process of issuing a request for proposal to get a manufacturer to process recyclables in Phoenix. But that takes time.

In the meantime, in Phoenix, Flagstaff and a growing number of U.S. cities, recyclables are going to a landfill.


To play, tap on the red button below.

How to Play:

Certain countries across the globe specialize in recycling certain items. Our goal is to successfully sort mass quantities of recyclables so we can transport them to their specialized country. Seems nice, right? There is a catch – once these countries receive capacity of recyclables, they have the right to turn away more.

The player must sort and recycle as many items as they can by placing them into their designated bins all within the allotted time frame. For each misplaced item as well as items left over the end of the level, these items will be sent to the landfill. As the player advances through the levels, different situations may occur to challenge the sorting process. Try to recycle at least 70% of the items to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

Our recycling game was developed by Audrey Kruse and Desiree Cunningham who are students at the Cronkite School’s New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab. Students in the lab design and develop news games that tell complex stories in innovative ways, helping news organizations, including Cronkite News at Arizona PBS, engage new audiences.