Experts are concerned that these increasingly popular destinations for US waste do not have the capacity to deal with waste in a safe or environmental way.
“Some of these countries just don’t have the infrastructure in ports or roads to deal with an increase in volume of material,” Robin Wiener, CEO of US trade body the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), told Unearthed.
“Pop-up recyclers are trying to take advantage of these shifting markets but they are not doing it properly. They are not following industry standards when it comes to environmental, health, and safety practices.”
A global crisis
All of this poses an unprecedented challenge for American recyclers.
“We saw the writing on the wall,” Brent Bell, VP of recycling at Waste Management, the biggest waste management firm in the US, told Unearthed. “The industry has to find domestic outlets for our material.”
Recycling firms, under pressure to meet higher standards, have seen costs rocket. While they have traditionally paid authorities for waste that could be turned into recycled goods, they are now starting to charge the state for the cost of getting rid of it.
Stockpiling has been occurring in California, now the world’s fifth largest economy, and a number of bills are now being considered to cut plastic waste.
Coastal cities have historically been more dependent on exporting waste to be recycled.s.
San Diego is now facing a potential $1.1m annual charge from its waste contractor, which last year provided the city with a $4m income stream.
“The environmental benefits of recycling now come with a cost that we haven’t seen in California before,” Zoe Heller, assistant director of policy development at CalRecycle, California’s state waste management agency, told Unearthed.
“What used to be a very profitable revenue stream is now becoming a cost.”
In towns and cities across the US, firms have been taking a variety of steps to deal with the backlog. Some have suspended their recycling schemes, begun education campaigns or refused to accept certain types of plastic waste. Others have refused to pick up rubbish from outside houses, sent recycling to landfill or burned it.
Residents may have to pick up the bill; one town in Vermont is soon to start charging residents for their recycling. Alternatively costs could be passed on through higher taxes.
In total, US plastic waste exports in the first six months of 2018 were worth $270m, a drop of almost $90m on the previous year.
Bell, from Waste Management, is clear about what he thinks needs to happen:
“We have toencourage manufacturers to use a high proportion of recycled content in their products. And we have to make sure recycling is clean to begin with.
“There need to be more grants to help with upfront investments in manufacturing facilities so more companies can take recycled materials and make them into new products.”
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