SWANApalooza: How the industry is (and isn't) adapting, post-China
- China scrap discussions often come back to reducing contamination and expanding domestic capacity. SWANApalooza's opening panel in Denver had plenty of that, with some hints about where the conversation goes next. According to Brent Bell, vice president of recycling for Waste Management, that won't include changes in collection. "I don't think we're going to go backward on the dual-stream ways. I think that ship's already sailed," he said.
- Other panelists agreed single-stream is here to stay and new technology emerged as one potential way to combat persistent contamination found in carts. "A lot of the innovation and a lot of the new investment was into adding materials," said Ron Vance, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's Resource Conservation Branch. "I wonder if this will reconcentrate the innovation back down to the processing of the primary materials."
- Amid the broader discussion about how to change recycling economics, one audience member asked about a national landfill tax for the U.S. The group was doubtful that would ever happen in the current state-driven regulatory structure. "Congress has trouble agreeing that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. I would have a lot of difficulty thinking that we would to be able to get a world where 60 senators and the majority of the House of Representatives would vote to approve a federal landfill tax," said David Biderman, CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America.
In the eight months since China announced import restrictions, the industry's talking points have essentially followed the five stages of grief. Most people now appear to be entering the acceptance phase. Containers are getting rejected, import licenses are down and the new 0.5% contamination standards are in effect as of this month. Figuring out what went wrong and what comes next is now the top priority.
When asked by Biderman why the industry wasn't prepared, Bell said the China shift caught many by surprise because it seemed to go against the country's economic interests.
"That dynamic worked out very well for the last decade or so," Bell said.
Bell also recognized that "we really weren't prepared" to meet the new quality standards and said more customer education was needed to change that. While Waste Management has positioned itself as a leader in this discussion, and the drive for more domestic manufacturing demand, the response has been multi-pronged.
Often in concert with industry associations, the EPA and government officials have also been attempting to engage on an international level.
"What we're trying to do is unite the conversations into a more national approach," said Vance. "No single one of us will be able to solve this problem as a whole."
Panelists from King County, WA and Las Cruces, NM echoed this need for collaboration, especially at a regional level. Both areas have been feeling heavier market effects.
Going forward, all panelists agreed more education was needed to engage both the public and the manufacturing industry around the challenges of recycling. Figuring out how to do that is, of course, complicated.
One idea, which Biderman said SWANA plans to focus on this year, is to highlight the job creation potential of keeping materials domestic. Waste Management has said it wants to drive more domestic demand pull. Groups such as the National Recycling Coalition have also been trying to reinvigorate the market development conversation.
Following the panel, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper touched on some local recycling examples involving breweries, but recognized the inherent challenges in making that work at scale. In closing, he compared the situation to riding a horse.
"Sometimes it doesn't seem like there's an obvious or even a possible answer there," said Hickenlooper. "When we face challenges that don't seem like we can handle them, that don't seem like we can overcome them, the opposite of whoa is to giddy-up."
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