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China’s Trash, Phoenix’s Treasure

Written by Steven Totten Category: Valley News Issue: December 2018
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How the Asian giant’s recycling ban gave Valley sustainability a leg up.

When the Chinese government announced in January 2018 that it would no longer process recyclable materials from the United States and other developed countries, it effectively turned $6 billion of goods into trash and threw a 25-year model in turmoil.

“One of the largest players in the ecosystem had stepped out,” says Richard Coupland, an executive with Republic Services, one of the largest waste processors in the U.S. “There was no buyer or home.”

The ban hit U.S. municipalities hardest, since waste management is largely decided locally. Phoenix has three recycling facilities, but they're not equipped to process a category of trash called mixed plastics (see sidebar), which are shipped to Asia, or consigned to a landfill.

Luckily, months before the Chinese government’s announcement, Phoenix was brainstorming plans to better address its recycling. This summer, the city’s public works department sent out a request for proposals to create a new city-owned recycling facility to process mixed plastics. It’s part of Phoenix’s plan to divert 40 percent of its waste from landfills by 2020 (0 percent by 2050). It’s the first and only facility of its kind in a major U.S. city, perhaps a model for others.

“Everyone started throwing up their hands and landfilling all the [plastics], but we wanted to see if there were other options out there,” says Rick Peters, deputy director of public works.

The city received three bids, and by the time this is published, Phoenix will have announced the winner. That project is slated to be complete within the next year or so.

“[Phoenix] should get some credit for this decision, for being a forward-thinker,” says Mick Dalrymple, director of University Sustainability Practices at Arizona State University. “This is something other municipalities would immediately look to.”

Dalrymple, who has worked with Phoenix and other cities on sustainability initiatives, says a recycling facility of this kind would create a circular economy. The benefit and profit would come back directly to the city, rather than get outsourced to places like China, or countries like Malaysia and Vietnam, where many cities have been sending recyclable materials since China’s ban.

“There’s a huge number of benefits. We’ll create local jobs. If the recycled goods are sold within the community, that’s more dollars in the local economy,” he says.

While everyone in the recycling industry contends that China’s decision put a damper on the long-standing business model, Dalrymple sees the change as a “wakeup call.”

“You’re closing those loops so we stop depleting the world of resources and throwing things away, but the thing is there’s no real ‘away,’” he says. “We just made that up, and eventually we’ll run out of away.”

Long before China’s ban, the recycling industry had – and still has – an even more pressing problem: people.

While recycling may seem fairly basic ­– plastic bags, empty bottles and whatever isn’t food can be recycled – it isn’t quite that simple. “The thing that’s really important is making sure people are not putting things in recycling that don’t belong there,” Peters says, especially plastic grocery bags.

When people put improper things in recycling bins, it means more work, less profit, and more waste for recycling facilities. Republic Services, which sorts roughly 60 percent of Phoenix’s recyclables, has to take a third of its recycled goods to a landfill because of contamination. “Things that are blatantly not supposed to be there like car seats, garden hoses... things that are recyclable but are not empty, clean or dry, like a pizza box where the bottom is saturated with grease,” Coupland says. “It has no secondary value.”

With this new facility and educational outreach, that former waste could have a much higher secondary value.

“That’s what you’re hoping for,” Peters says. “It’d provide a financial benefit as well as a sustainable one.”

What are mixed plastics?
Phoenix’s facility would process mixed plastics, roughly 13 tons of which is estimated to be in the city’s waste streams annually. Here’s a rundown of what mixed plastics, or plastics Nos. 3-7, are.
 
3. Polyvinyl Chloride Semi-rigid, glossy plastics that sink, like water bottles

4. Low-Density Polyethylene Squeezable condiment bottles

5. Polypropylene White/colored plastic, like yogurt tubs or straws

6. Polystyrene Plastic cups and plates, empty medicine bottles

7. Other Tupperware, water jugs