The state of landfills in the USA

In the United States, hundreds of cities, crumbling under their waste, no longer recycle. Since China decided to stop importing American waste, the USA has faced the problem of managing its trash.

Is the US recycling network collapsing?

In Philadelphia, the recyclable waste of half the inhabitants – it is 1.5 million – is now incinerated. The cans, bottles and newspapers that accumulate in the recycling bins of Memphis International Airport end up in a landfill. And the city of Daltona, Florida recently suspended its municipal recycling program.

Since China, hitherto the number one destination for American waste has chosen to no longer be the trash can of the world, hundreds of municipalities across the United States have discovered what this means costs to consume, and therefore produce tons of waste. And their are forced to reinvent their waste management practices.

In 2017 Beijing notified the World Trade Organization (WTO) that it would ban the entry into its territory of twenty-four categories of solid – plastics, paper and textiles – waste. To justify this change, the Chinese authorities have put forward the environmental argument and the need to develop their own recycling industry. The measure came into effect at the end of 2017 and in November 2018, Beijing announced that thirty-two new products, ranging from scrap stainless steel to wood via auto and ship parts, would be added to the list of those already banned.

Between 1992 and 2017, China and Hong Kong imported 72.4% of all plastic waste for recycling. Every day, 4,000 containers of recyclable plastic used to leave the United States for China. But between January and October 2018, plastic, paper and metal waste imported by Beijing decreased by 51.5% compared to the first ten months of 2017.

Incinerate rather than sort

As a consequence, sorting paper, plastics, metal and glass, as well as finding outlets for these products are proving to be too expensive today for many American municipalities. Even for the largest city in Pennsylvania, whose inhabitants produce 400 tonnes of recyclable waste per day. Chicago junk disposal services have to find new supplies of roll-off dumpster to handle the increase is demand for waste management programs.

When recycled, the Municipality of Philadelphia made money. In 2012, Republic Services, one of the giants of the management of the sector, paid 67.35 dollars to the city for the treatment of a ton of waste. But after the decision of the Chinese authorities, the situation changed. In the summer of 2018, when Republic Services renegotiated the contract, the company planned to charge $ 170 for recycling a ton of waste.

Too expensive for the city, which decided to use the services of a competitor, Waste Management. But the latter is only able to handle half of municipal waste, for 78 dollars per ton. The rest is incinerated by Covanta Energy, another player in the waste and incineration sector. Most of us think that recycling is a service offered by the city, but it is actually a business.

Small towns like Broadway in Virginia, Blaine County in Idaho or Franklin in New Hampshire are not spared. In 2010, Franklin (8,600 inhabitants) launched a recycling program that did not weigh on his finances: a ton of recycled waste brought them 6 dollars, which was enough to pay for the selective sorting service. But since the change in policy in China, it has to pay $125 to recycle a ton of waste, or $68 to incinerate it. With 18.4% of its population below the poverty line, the municipality does not see itself raising taxes to finance recycling: it has also chosen the incineration solution, which is bad for air quality.

When not using incineration or sorting, municipalities are forced to open landfills. These are the third largest source of human-made methane emissions in the United States: they accounted for approximately 14.1% of these emissions in 2016, according to figures from the Environment Agency (EPA).

Alternative solutions

China has given the industry too little time to adjust, the US will soon have so much inventory that they will have to put more and more in landfills if they do not find new markets. American cities cannot bet on other countries that import waste either. Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and India are unable to absorb the tens of millions of tonnes that China imported. And when these countries agree to import part of it, they impose a drastic specification.

So what to do? Working upstream to reduce the use of plastic seems to be one of the only solutions. The sooner they accept that recycling is economically impracticable, the sooner they can make progress in solving the problem of plastic pollution. Municipalities like San Francisco are also trying to change mentalities. In addition to reducing their consumption, reusing and recycling, the city encourages its inhabitants to refuse to consume. A gamble far from being won in the middle of Silicon Valley, and while the American economy is running at full speed and producing more waste than ever: in 2015, the last year for which national data are available, the United States produced 262.4 million tonnes of waste, 4.5% more than in 2010 and 60% more than in 1985.