American Recycling: Exporting Our Way to a Greener Tomorrow?
In the “Bewitched” era, when “Mad Men” became “Deadheads,” the United States generated around 88 million tons a year of MSW (Municipal Solid Waste), but only recycled 6.4% (5.6 million tons) of the 88 million tons thrown away. In 2010, Americans’ have nearly tripled their amount of waste by creating 250 million tons of trash. Of this, 85 million tons were recycled and composted, accounting for a 34% recycling rate. A 27% recycling rate improvement might be a step in the right direction, but 164.9 million tons of post consumer resources have been lost to landfills.
It is estimated that today’s average individual generates 4.43 pounds of trash daily. Of this, the average Joe is only recycling 1.51 pounds of waste. Where does this 1.51 pounds go? Approximately half of these recycled materials are exported. Resources are being consumed, disposed, processed, and shipped abroad to end users who compete internationally for these materials.
Several complications arise when one attempts to track these tons of waste, beginning with the lack of a definition of what is recyclable, and ending with no resolute accuracy concerning the rates at which we recycle. Each state creates its own recycling definition and calculates the recycling rate in its own interesting mathematic style that was approved, we are sure, through scientific reasoning and, of course, legislative votes.
Then there is the task of calculating the actual total generation of material in the US. This is attempted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its consultant, Franklin Associates. They have devised a materials flow methodology that gathers data “from industry associations, key businesses… and supported by governmental data from sources such as the Department of Commerce and the US Census Bureau.” The flow of goods, allowing for adjustments in imports and exports, are estimated as are the life expectancy of such goods. These variables calculated act as a roller brush on the fine canvas of the waste disposal industry so as to define an order of magnitude of what we are dealing with.
Inevitably, commerce of these post consumer materials is through the hands of brokers who make their profits on tiny bits of privileged information. These bits of information are not for the industrial common good, but rather for individual profits. Brokers stay as tight lipped as a political campaign’s bagman who make information unattainable for the cashless seeker of data.
ISRI, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, has cash, however, and has gathered data from studies revealing that scrap, after it has been recycled and brokered out domestically and abroad, is sought after by nearly 330 firms involved in further brokering of waste throughout the world while others are simply suppliers. It is estimated that the recycling industry maintains 132,500 supplier jobs that produce nearly $28 billion in economic activity. Scrap processors, brokers and suppliers all employed approximately 459,100 American workers. Spending by these employees’ attributes to what is known as the “induced impact.” The estimated induced impact by these employees was roughly $29.9 billion.
In 2010 alone, more than 130 million metric tons of scrap metal, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, rubber and electronics valued at $77 billion, were recirculated into the manufacturing industry. The US-based scrap industry employed approximately 130,000 workers within US borders.
In the business of recyclables, assessing the different materials being reproduced individually allows for a picture to be painted of the entire industry. The following gives us a look at certain recyclable materials and how they fit into the export market.
In 2010, 63.5% of paper used was recovered for recycling. This represents an 89% spike in the recovery rate since 1990. Further data shows that 31% of recycled paper and paperboard gets reproduced as containerboard, and 12% for boxboard. Exports of recycled paper to China and other nations account for 40% of US recycled paper. As the rest of the world continues its consumption of paper, the Chinese papermaking industry has maintained its steady growth in the market. In 1999, the total production of paper and paperboard in China was 29 million tons. That figure has skyrocketed to 93.83 million tons in 2009, amounting to a multiplier of 3.23 increase in just 10 years. In 2010, the amount of paperboard is estimated to rise above 100 million tons. China’s papermaking industry is part of a macro economy whose industry maintains a vigorous growing trend. With the shortage of paper fiber resources, the dependency of recycled paper is steadily growing along with the industry.
Recovered paper export statistics from the US Department of Commerce indicate something other than recent reports of a weak export market. Traders have cited declining exports as a partial cause of eroding prices, including a massive drop of $100 per ton for sorted office paper (SOP) within a month and a milder drop in old corrugated (OCC) prices. The Paper Stock Report on January 10, 2012 tracked mill-buying prices for 17 differing grades of paper and found the average national price to be $127.11 per ton. One year ago the average price was $149.24 per ton. Not such a major drop.
Newport CH International LLC is an international trading company focused on the purchasing and direct export sale of wastepaper for the recycling industry. Of the 18 million tons of paper they deal with, 98% of it is exported. Of those exports, roughly 85% is sent to China. Once in China, most of the manufactured paper is used domestically, what gets exported from China is usually found in our cardboard materials. The remaining 15% of the paper is shipped to other countries such as South America, Mexico, Taiwan, Canada, and some to South Korea. Jim Fagelson, partial owner of Newport CH International, said, “We are a green business, but we are in business to make money. The majority of what we do involves exports, but we do support domestic sales, it is just a very small percentage of the market.”
American Chung Nam, which is the largest exporter of recovered paper in America, does much of its business with paper and paperboard producing companies like Nine Dragons, a mainland Chinese company. As of 2009, Nine Dragons had 21 paper machines, with a yearly design production capacity of 7.75 million tons. As Fagelson points out, “Companies such as these are leaders in the industry because of the economics. There is no growth in the domestic market. Everybody is pointing [a] finger at labor costs, but the fact of the matter is the market is slowing down, and prices of resources like water and energy… are high. No matter how environmentally friendly you want to be, you have to be economical to do so.”
The recycling of textiles is at least a 200-year-old business evoking the image of Dickens’ urchin living off the scraps of the British upper classes. Over the past five years, the percentage of textiles recycled has stayed constant. The US produced 13.12 millions tons of textile waste, leaving 11.15 million tons of waste to be disposed of in 2010, a 15% recovery rate. People take their old clothes to places like Goodwill and Salvation Army, who then cull the best materials for their showroom floors, sending the remaining materials to a rags industry made-up of workers able to recognize differing types of fiber. Generally, the textiles are split into five categories. Shoes are sorted out and kicked-off to countries in South America and Africa; trousers and skirts are unzipped and sold to the flocking industry, whose motto is “Can you imagine a world without flock?” These materials become fillers for things such as roofing felts and loudspeaker cones. Woolen garments become yarns. Cotton and silk are sorted into grades and sold to folks who make items such as wiping cloths, and those items that can still be worn as clothes but not in this country are shipped to lesser developed countries to be sold or given away. Rubber and leather added 7.78 million tons and shared a similar recovery rate as other textiles, leaving 6.61 million tons domestically astray.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a thermoplastic polymer resin used in synthetic fibers to produce food and beverage containers. There was a time when most containers were made out of glass. Baby bottles, for instance, were made of glass. In hospitals, intravenous fluid had been contained in glass bottles hanging above patients who felt lucky to no longer need worry about medical leeches. Today, IV plastic sacks have replaced those glass bottles. The glass bottle market share, in other words, has dropped considerably over the past four decades.
According to the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), which makes its home amongst the heavily glass bottled wineries of Sonoma, CA, approximately 29.1% of the PET post consumer material is recycled. Table 1: PET Bottles Recycling Rate, was culled from one of NAPCOR’s reports showing that the recycling rate of PET bottles has been between 20 and 29% over the past ten years.
Where do these recycled bottles go? According to Dennis Sanbourin, the executive director of NAPCOR, “Approximately 50% of the post-consumer PET is exported, and the vast majority of that is consumed by China.” In NAPCOR’s most recent report, exported PET has accounted for 45% of all post consumer PET between 2000 and 2010. Since 2006, the percentage of PET exported has averaged off of US shores and mainly China by 54%.
NAPCOR’s members fall into four categories: PET resin manufacturers, such as Eastman Chemical Co.; PET bottle manufacturers, such as Colgate-Palmolive Co.; PET thermoform and sheet manufacturers, such as Sonoco Plastics; and the many suppliers to the PET industry, such as Evergreen Plastics. These companies understand the difficulty of capturing recycled resin. Recycling of PET is hampered if there is not enough volume of material in a short period of time to recycle. Plastic’s relative low weight, which gives it a market advantage to glass in the container competition, inhibits rural and island communities from cost-effectively recycling this commodity. There are economic constraints that limit the amount of PET that is recycled to an average of 24% over 10 years. China has increasingly become more competitive in the post-consumer PET market and has taken the lion’s share of the 45% it has captured. Sanbourin says, “China is an importer of this material from global sources such as the United States, South and Central America, Europe, and Asian countries.”
Rumors abound that China is gearing up an internal recycling collection program, but that is unsubstantiated. When asked this question, Sanbourin replied, “If there is a God, this will happen.” China’s appetite for this product raises the price of the material, cuts the supply, and forces domestic consumers to buy more virgin resources that tend to be more costly. America’s appetite for consuming PET does not look to be on the wane but its recycling rate is struggling to break the 30% mark.
The EPA’s executive summary of electronic waste management estimates that the use of electronic products has grown substantially over the past two decades. Published in 2011, it gathered information from a study spanning a time frame in which electronic entertainment has continually evolved and, some would say, is consuming our daily and professional lives. The public demand for recycling outlets and the cost of publicly handling this material has caused some states to invoke extended producer responsibility (EPR) legislation, forcing producers of electronics to internalize end-of-life costs of their products. According to the Electronics Take Back Coalition, 65% of the US population is now under an e-waste law, all of these except populations in Utah and California are EPR based. The majority of consumers are now able to recycle their old electronics through the company they bought them from, local suppliers, and other local recycling businesses.
The EPA estimated that in 2009, 438 million new electronic products were sold; 5 million tons of electronics were in storage; 2.37 million tons were in need of end-of-life management; and conclusively, that 25% of these tons were collected. Of that, Table 2 shows the estimates of e-waste in storage.
The Coalition for American Electronic Recyclers (CAER) represents a grouping of companies (Redemtech, Hesstech, ECS Refining, Hugo Neu, Cascade Asset Management, Electronic Recyclers International, and Sims Recycling Solutions) that believe maintaining US e-waste internally will sustain the economy by providing jobs that aren’t outsourced. In turn, it believes this will also strengthen trade relations with oversea manufacturers. As of January 16, 2012, there are 46 member companies operating a total of 108 facilities in 32 states, plus the District of Columbia.
Sims Recycling Solutions offers legislatively compliant e-waste disposal services that are both cost effective and safe for those who want to responsibly dispose of their old electronics while maintaining their safety for data residing on their passed-on electronics. Sims sends the majority of their recycled materials to China with plastics from electronic equipment being their prized commodity. For China, there is a very short list of audited materials. Steel is a material Sims typically sells domestically to steel mills, with some of it going to India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Some aluminum and copper gets shipped to Canada, Europe, and Japan.
In China, part of the management requires monitoring of the system of production by separating different types of hard plastics. Sims, for instance, turns poly carbon, into pellets before it is sold to compounders in China. Steve Skurnac, president of Sims Recycling Solutions, says, “They are always open and welcome to the domestic sales of materials, in fact, that is one of their goals. The problem is that there is just not enough infrastructure domestically to be sustainable.” Sims recently opened new plants in Dallas and New Jersey to go along with numerous other plants spanning from one coastline to the other in the US. The company supports local sales and prides itself on canceling out middlemen and dealing directly with global buyers. Skurnac says, “It is how we take ownership of our business, plus, it allows Sims to perform audits to protect the environment and workers.”
Sims, along with the many other businesses and institutions who are apart of the CAER, supports the passage of The American Electronics Recycling Act. This legislation is meant to prohibit the export of certain electronic waste from the US. This bill is in the beginning stages of the legislative process. It must first go to committees that deliberate, investigate, and revise certain aspects before it goes on to general debates. The bill has been introduced and referred to the committee, if it passes, it must then be reported by the committee, pass the house and senate votes, and be signed by the president. Paul Vetter, a public relations consultant for CAER, commented on the legislation by saying, “The idea behind the legislature is to build a domestic raw materials industry that promotes fair and reasonable trade, which in turn, promotes reasonable investment infrastructure.” Vetter went on to mention that, “The big issue is that E-waste generated in the US is being exported inexpensively, thus negating the use of environmental standards and worker safety.” So, in essence, companies like Sims Recycling Solutions are a diamond in the rough.
In 2010, it was estimated that 96.2% of the automotive batteries used were recycled in an environmentally safe manner, eventually being placed back into the manufacturing industry. Though batteries all come in their own functional, yet versatile form, they are typically comprised of the same two materials, an electrolyte and heavy metal. Gel-cells and sealed lead-acid batteries are commonly used to power industrial equipment, emergency lighting, and alarm systems. Automotive stores and local waste agencies may collect batteries for recycling gel cells as well.
Dry-cell batteries such as alkaline and carbon zinc (9-volt, D, C, AA, AAA), mercuric-oxide (button, some cylindrical and rectangular), silver-oxide and zinc-air (button), and lithium (9-volt, C, AA, coin, button, rechargeable), represent the everyday household batteries used in flashlights, remote controls, and other appliances and have several reclamation companies now processing their materials.
Most button-cell batteries are small round batteries found in items such as watches and hearing aids containing mercury, silver, cadmium, lithium, or other heavy metals as their main component. Button cells are increasingly targeted for recycling because of their value as a recoverable material. They’re small sized and easy to handle relative to other battery types, making their recycle value high.
Exports of universal waste from batteries have been subject to hazardous waste export requirements since 1995. In 2009, roughly 2,554 tons of battery waste were exported to Canada for recycling. As stated above, exports of spent lead acid batteries became subject to RCRA hazardous waste export requirements on July 7, 2010, so the amount exported in 2009 for recycling isn’t known.
According to a recent National Biennial RCRA Hazardous Waste Report, 16,220 large-quantity generators accumulated 35.5 million tons of RCRA hazardous waste in 2009. Of this, 305,840 tons or 1% of the whole was exported from the US. Canada received 78.7% of this wonderful material, where the majority is disposed of. Mexico received 15.8% of the exported amount, and the remaining 5.5% are split among the Republic of Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan. The Biennial Report is broken into two different sets of analysis, national and state studies. Companies such as Evonik Cyro LLC, Exide Technologies, Rineco Chemical Industries, and Systech Environmental Services, are spread nationally throughout the country to receive RCRA waste. Of the 35.3 million tons of waste produced in 2009, roughly 7 million tons were received domestically.
Much like its manufacturing sector, the Chinese recycling industry is the global leader in nearly every category imaginable. Data provided by the US International Trade Commission shows Chinese imports of US cast-offs (scrap metal, waste paper, and the like) skyrocketed to an eye-popping 916% over the 2000-2008 period, with most of that expansion occurring after 2004.
All of these exported goods have to be shipped. If one thought the cost of shipping were going to price the export market out of competition, think again. The transportation of these materials is done across sea-lanes, and the transportation is getting more efficient. Take, as an example, The Emma Maersk, built in Denmark in 2006, is one of the many container ships moving these materials across the world. She and her seven sister ships are the longest container ships constructed and the longest ships in service. She is 1,302 feet long and has one of the largest internal combustion engines built, developing 109,000 horsepower. This turns the longest propeller shaft at 423 feet, which drives the largest propeller, 156 tons. This gives Emma Maersk a top speed of 25.5 knots. To run all of this takes a crew of 13 people. The Emma Maersk is able to carry around 7,500, 40-foot containers. This enables her to move goods between Asia, Europe and the US very cheaply. Today’s rate for a 20-foot container is currently about $700. This would hold about 35,000 T-shirts, which makes the cost of shipping one from China to Europe about 2 cents.
Globalization is driven by more than just cheap labor; it is driven by innovation. For the domestic recyclable material end-use market to grow, one of two things needs to happen: barriers to export trade or domestic innovation.
Author's Bio: James Kulig writes on topics related to waste management and the environment.
Author's Bio: Writer Chace Anderson is also vice president of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc.