U.S. Recycling Industry Is Struggling To Figure Out A Future Without China China is no longer taking the world's waste. The U.S. recycling industry is overwhelmed — it can't keep up with the plastic being churned out. This doesn't bode well for our plastic waste problem.
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U.S. Recycling Industry Is Struggling To Figure Out A Future Without China

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U.S. Recycling Industry Is Struggling To Figure Out A Future Without China

U.S. Recycling Industry Is Struggling To Figure Out A Future Without China

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/750864036/752882698" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Recycling is easy. Right? You put trash in your bin. It gets emptied once a week. It's taken care of - except when it's not. A lot of the plastic in those bins ends up in the ocean. It's in whales' stomachs, on beaches, in rivers. NPR's Christopher Joyce has a story on what recycling can and can't do with all that plastic waste.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: At best, about 10% of America's plastic waste gets recycled - and a lot of it in China. But last year, China said, we don't want all that waste anymore. They called their decision National Sword, and it freaked people out in the U.S. What, they asked, are we going to do with all that waste?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So welcome to our session, Life After National Sword - great panelists here.

JOYCE: Last March, executives from companies that package their goods in plastic or who recycle plastic met in Washington, D.C. It was a time of reckoning. John Caturano is recycling manager for Nestle Waters. They sell water in plastic bottles.

JOHN CATURANO: The water bottle has, in some way, become the mink coat or the pack of cigarettes. It's socially not very acceptable to the young folks, and that scares me.

JOYCE: Sunil Bagaria runs a recycling company, GDB International.

SUNIL BAGARIA: For long - forever, we have depended upon shipping our scrap overseas. Let's stop that.

JOYCE: After a couple of days of this, a woman named Kara Pochiro stood up and said, OK. Don't panic.

KARA POCHIRO: Plastic recycling isn't dead. It works. And it's important to protecting our environment. And it's essential to the circular economy.

JOYCE: Pochiro is a vice president of the Association of Plastic Recyclers. The circular economy she refers to is, potentially, a way out of this plastic mess. The idea is essentially this. We need plastic, but we should try to recycle a lot more of it and use it again and again and again. That will eliminate a lot of waste and the need for more brand-new plastic. So why aren't we doing that? I visited the recycler that's trying - TerraCycle - in Trenton, N.J.

ERNIE SIMPSON: I'm Ernie Simpson. I'm the global vice president of R&D for TerraCycle.

JOYCE: Simpson turns plastic waste collected from beaches into new products. Inside his lab, he's got an array of sophisticated and expensive equipment. What goes into it is junk.

SIMPSON: This is the famous beach plastic from the ocean.

JOYCE: Wrappers, caps, bottles - Simpson must first figure out what kind of plastic each piece is made of. Some has to be melted, some shredded, some chemically treated. I ask him how many kinds there are.

SIMPSON: Oh - indefinite, just about. I mean, there are about 20 different categories of material. But there are blends, and there are hybrids.

JOYCE: The beach plastic project is a collaboration with Procter & Gamble, the big consumer brands company. TerraCycle turns the waste into plastic pellets. P&G turns the pellets into brand-new containers.

SIMPSON: And so that's how the famous Head & Shoulders shampoo bottle was created.

JOYCE: That bottle is being touted as an example of circularity. But there's a catch. Recycled beach plastic costs a heck of a lot.

SIMPSON: This particular one is probably about three times as expensive as virgin.

JOYCE: Virgin being new plastic made straight from oil and gas out of the ground. Another problem - there aren't enough recyclers in the U.S. to handle all the plastic waste out there. Even if there were, it's hard to compete with cheap virgin plastic pouring out of petrochemical plants.

KEEFE HARRISON: Recycling is the underdog.

JOYCE: Keefe Harrison runs The Recycling Partnership, a group trying to boost the industry.

HARRISON: We're fighting an uphill battle of making it cost competitive from day one.

JOYCE: Harrison says domestic recycling stalled because, for years, the U.S. outsourced so much of it to China. Meanwhile, plastic waste just keeps coming and coming.

HARRISON: So we've got these companies producing these new packagings (ph) and new materials or new plastics in such a scientifically and business-driven way. And then it relies on the disjointed network that is recycling to get it back, and it is not robust.

HARRISON: Petrochemical companies like Shell and consumer brands like Procter & Gamble have pledged to make more plastic recyclable. But it won't actually get recycled if recyclers can't make money doing that. Kara Pochiro of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, the woman at the Washington conference who said recycling is not dead, is more optimistic. She says the industry just needs some help.

POCHIRO: We're trying to make consumers understand that recycling isn't just about putting your container in the bin. You also need to buy recycled. And if the companies understand that they want recycled plastics, then hopefully that will happen.

JOYCE: But even if circularity catches on, there's a mismatch between recyclers and the petrochemical industry. If packagers really use more recycled plastic, they won't need so much new, virgin plastic. But the petrochemical industry says it will likely double its plastic manufacturing capacity from 2016 to 2024. According to industry documents, they'll spend $25 billion by 2025 to make more plastic. So where is all that new plastic going to go in a world that increasingly wants less of it?

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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