Jan 27, 2020
Protect our Recycle Supply
Finding a reliable primary source regarding international news is often difficult, thus I relegated to my editorial column the topic of keeping and using our own recycle streams. I want to talk specifically about the potential use of recycle products in North America’s road mixes, as seen in my article, “High-Density Plastics Work for Central Asphalt Mix, Paving” on page 32. That begins with a brief explanation of why we get to keep more of our recyclables these days.
Readers may be aware that China imports trash from other countries for the purpose of recycling it. Within the past few years, China has instituted a policy it refers to as its “Green Fence,” by which it refuses recyclables from countries based on whether those recyclables will be too difficult to clean and put through its recycling system. The oversimplified concept is it takes a certain amount of financial resources to sort and clean trash into usable, crushable, shreddable bits and so forth. If China wishes to remain profitable in its recycling efforts, it must accept only the best of the best in terms of trash. If entities wish to continue sending recyclables to China, changes must be made.
I’m temped to trust the Vangel website, a woman-owned business enterprise (WBE) specializing in customized office recycling programs and electronics recycling services, for more information on this. Their take on how to get materials past China’s Green Fence is stated well (at vangelinc.com): “Because of our long-term dependence on exporting our recyclables to China, we in the U.S. do not have the facilities readily available to adequately sort and clean materials so that they’re up to China’s standards.”
Assuming China has “standards” is akin to hearing Obi-Wan tell young Luke that blast points on a sandcrawler couldn’t be made by Jawas because Imperial Stormtroopers are far more precise. It’s laughable. But the statement in Vangel’s report should stop us in our tracks. Read it slowly. And then: “As a result of China’s Green Fence, U.S. recycling centers that once accepted scrap plastic for recycling are being forced to send it to American landfills.”
The tariffs placed on steel imported from China (albeit a small portion of the steel we import to the United States) exposed a similar problem.
For the past few decades, the United States has grown reliant on foreign steel manufacture, production plants have closed and our workforce has boasted fewer skilled laborers in that arena. As I hinted at the start of this note, online “news” sources tend to bandy announcements around rather than report facts, so it’s difficult to track down exact numbers of blast furnaces that have been restarted or new furnaces built since the rates of duty were put in place on imported steel and aluminum. One organization (www.Steel.org) has kept its audience updated on the global over-capacity crisis in the steel industry while reporting U.S. import percentages decreasing (of course), while U.S. steel mills are seeing year-to-date increases in tons of steel shipped. Instead of sending every student to university for a four-year, lifetime debt, we’re offering skilled trades to students for high-paying, lifetime careers.
The same may come to pass with the recycling efforts aimed at saving our planet.
It’s no secret I’m a proponent for protecting our oceans. I’ve donated to Boyan Slat’s ocean-cleaning System 001, and I carry my stainless steel straws around so I’m one less human using plastic straws. But we Americans have multitudes of single-stream recycling centers dotting our cities where we now need to make decisions regarding job creation. We could put more people to work diverting the high-density polyethylene items from the stream to the mills for additional asphalt industry testing, mixing, blending and paving. It looks like we have a winning strategy developing there. If China with its “standards” isn’t helping us save the planet, the asphalt industry can assist by using a portion of the stream.
Rather than packaging up our plastics and literally shipping them across the ocean to a foreign country imposing standards to make its processing easier, I propose we up our game. If we have to clean and sort our recyclables more precisely for other countries, let’s go ahead and institute those policies for ourselves and re-use our materials for ourselves. Build our own facilities and train our own workers in earth-saving careers and put quality recyclables into quality road building concepts. We have the ingenuity to accomplish such goals on our own.