Recycling Isn’t About the Planet. It’s About Profit.

When you drop a bottle in a blue bin, you’re joining the unruly transglobal trash trade.

Piles of baled plastic sit in a recycling facility warehouse.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Henry Grabar.

If you wanted to recycle a Coke bottle, the spring of 2011 was a great time to do it. That spring, every soda bottle you dropped into the translucent blue bag in your kitchen was worth about eight times what it had been just 2½ years earlier, and four times what it would be five years later. Municipal recycling agencies (and town dumps) found themselves sitting on heaps of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic that could be spun, Rumpelstiltskin-like, into gold.

But for the companies that actually do the recycling, that spring was not so good at all. Oil had reached a two-year high, and soda bottles are made of PET, which, like all plastics, is basically just processed oil. As the price of “raw” plastic increased, recycled plastic—a natural substitute for manufacturers—became more expensive too. What was good for cities’ recycling programs was bad for the companies that did business with them. The Coca-Cola Company’s Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant, which had opened in 2009 to recycle old soda bottles into new ones, idled as recycled PET plastic prices went through the roof.

We tend to think of recycling (abstract noun) as an idea in which we are deeply, perhaps morally, invested. But recycling is also a concrete noun, a word for physical stuff with a supply chain full of rivalrous buyers and sellers whose interests are often at odds. And it is also a verb—one we use to describe what we do in our kitchens and on our streets, though that is only the first step of a Coke bottle’s long, uncertain path toward reincarnation.

Recycling is the globe’s bizarro commodity, created by the richest people on Earth and sold to the developing world. Like all commodities, its price reflects a staggering string of interconnected happenings. Your 2011-era empty Coke bottle wasn’t just worth a lot because of high oil prices—it was worth a lot because Pakistan had suffered devastating monsoons in the summer of 2010. Flooding in the Indus River was one of a cascading series of events that sent cotton, in April 2011, to its highest nominal price since records began in 1870. Jeans were going to be more expensive, Levi’s announced. And so, it turned out, was recycled PET plastic, because for Chinese manufacturers of articles like teddy bears and blue jeans, polyester fibers made from old plastic bottles were a cost-effective replacement for cotton. Cotton was up; plastic was up; recycled PET prices went up. As when cotton hit its previous high price in 1995, the scramble was on for old bottles. Which you, American reader, the world’s leading consumer of soda and bottled water, had in spades.

It is currently, you may have heard, not a good time to be in the business of collecting and selling household recycling. Americans are still diligently filling our blue bags with everything we can, but there are fewer places for our dirty goods to go to find redemption. That’s in part thanks to China’s 2017 decision to shut the door on imports of recycled materials, ending a two-decade stretch during which the U.S. came to rely on the country to take and process about 70 percent of its used paper and 40 percent of its used plastic. In 2017, Republic Services, the second-largest waste collector in the U.S., was selling about 35 percent of its recyclables to China. By the end of 2018, China’s National Sword policy, which banned plastics outright and placed strict standards on paper imports, brought that number down to 1 percent.

Earlier this month, I asked Meleesa Johnson, president of the Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin, what her colleagues’ reaction was like when National Sword was announced. “Horror,” she said.

After China stopped buying, a supply glut sent prices for recycled materials down, and fast. Recyclers found themselves dumping paper in landfills outside Seattle and incinerating plastic in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Glass recycling is local but expensive, and its reuse had often been subsidized by paper and plastic, so with paper and plastic prices in freefall, glass disposal became more of a burden too. In October, Northeastern recyclers were sending just 54 percent of the bottles they collected to processors for reuse. The rest were basically landfilled.

Is American recycling still functioning? “Functioning may be a little optimistic,” says Analiese Smith, who runs the recycling program in Waukesha County outside Milwaukee. “But we’re keeping the lights on.”

Recycling was supposed to be, like the elimination of acid rain or the repair of the ozone layer, one of the few positive environmental legacies bequeathed by the boomers, the generation that otherwise did what it could to make the Earth uninhabitable for future generations. If you believe the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. recycling rates have been steadily rising for decades, from 6 percent of total municipal garbage generated in 1960 to over 34 percent in 2015—90 million tons of materials set aside for reuse. In reality, the picture was never as rosy as all that. But nor is the current situation so dire.

It’s also not all China’s fault. The country might be the easiest scapegoat, but this is a story about automation, deindustrialization, empty shipping containers, and dirty boxes. The interdependence of American producers and Chinese consumers is just one part of the recycling crisis. Every time you rinse out a jug or a can or a jar in your kitchen, you are, in some small way, competing with oil drillers and cotton pickers and miners and lumberjacks all over the world, because you too are creating a commodity. At present, the fruit of your labor is not terribly competitive. But your fortunes will turn.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Recycling writ large isn’t going anywhere. It’s an ancient practice motivated not by virtue but by profit. It’s also much bigger than your bottles. There are grease buyers and ship strippers and copper wire thieves. The single greatest recycled material in the United States, by weight, is ferrous scrap—primarily iron and steel from old cars. No one exports more ferrous scrap than we do. (The three biggest buyers are Turkey, Mexico, and Taiwan.)

But when you think of recycling, you’re almost certainly thinking of the recycling you make at home. (It always feels better when you make it at home, whether “it” is a roast chicken or a globally traded commodity.) Nobody makes more of it than you do, because nobody buys more stuff than you do. A lot of that stuff you buy comes from China, whose demand for raw materials to turn into your stuff was one of the defining economic stories of the 2000s.

The hunger of Chinese manufacturers for wood pulp, plastic, and aluminum can’t be met by Chinese suppliers or even big commodity exporters like Brazil and Indonesia. Chinese importers solved this problem by buying enormous amounts of recyclables to substitute for raw materials. China went from bringing in 7 million tons of recycled material between 1994 and 1998 to 104 million tons between 2009 and 2013—a 15-fold increase.

Relatedly, the explosion in Chinese exports meant that ports like Los Angeles (the nation’s largest) were always stacked with containers that arrived full of new sneakers and televisions but often had to return empty. Which meant shippers would basically take old paper and cardboard back to China for free—it functions as ballast. As a result, shipping a ton of old boxes from Los Angeles to Hong Kong was often cheaper than shipping it to a recycled paper mill in eastern Washington. In 2017, the single largest export from the Port of Los Angeles was wastepaper. The third-largest export was scrap metal. They don’t call us the Saudi Arabia of scrap for nothing.

According to data compiled by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, in 2017, China and Hong Kong bought 49 percent of our exported plastic (930,000 tons), 55 percent of our aluminum (871,000 tons), and 53 percent of used paper (more than 10 million tons).

Then came National Sword. It didn’t come out of nowhere. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced Operation Green Fence, a crackdown on poorly sorted shipments of used paper and plastic that arrived from America contaminated with trash. The work of sorting those bales had fallen to Chinese families whose impoverishment and appalling working conditions were the subject of the 2016 documentary Plastic China. This was the latest film by the documentarian Wang Jiuliang cataloging China’s environmental problems, and it became a smash success—and then disappeared from the internet in China. But perhaps Wang’s work made it to the right people: A few months after Plastic China premiered at Sundance, China told the WTO it would be cracking down on foreign garbage for public health reasons.

So, in 2018, the doors shut to American recycling, and over the next year, U.S. scrap exports to China dropped 38 percent.

Recyclers are currently feeling defensive about their industry. Articles like the Atlantic’s March story “Is This the End of Recycling?” have gotten their goat. Sure, we’re no longer in recycling boom times—men with rented U-Hauls aren’t stealing cardboard off the streets of Midtown Manhattan like they did in 2012. But China was only one of a handful of international buyers, and most recyclables have always been put to use domestically. That’s still happening.

But it’s not just about unloading the materials somewhere. It’s about getting paid for what you’ve got. And here, the recyclers—in this instance, the people who actually turn your old stuff into new stuff—currently have the upper hand. When a China-size buyer leaves the market, prices drop fast. Manufacturers’ inputs suddenly got a lot cheaper.

“It changed the landscape of the global recycling market in a very short amount of time,” says Pete Keller, a vice president at Republic, which collects recyclables in more than 2,700 US cities. “It’s costing more to collect, process, ultimately produce recycled materials today than they’re worth. So unless there’s a business transaction occurring at the front door of these centers, processors are not capable of making money today.” Republic is trying to revise its municipal contracts to reflect the price crash—many cities are going to have to pay more until prices recover.

One consequence of recycling’s role as the world’s reverse-commodity is that we are its miners. Its culture of production belongs to people who are in all other ways the globe’s biggest consumers, who rarely if ever produce any physical goods. But we produce this good, because the act of recycling gives us pleasure, satisfaction, a sense of environmental virtue. Like other people who toil at the first step of a commodity supply chain, we tend to have no idea where it ends up after it leaves our hands.

In March, I stood with Tom Outerbridge at a warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront, looking at a dozen enormous bricks of aluminum. Outerbridge is the general manager of this material recovery facility (MRF), run by Sims Municipal Recycling, where much of the refuse from America’s largest city becomes a commodity. Outerbridge sees a couple things in the aluminum: There’s a whole lot of foil from takeout, for example. Very New York. And there are very few soda and beer cans, because New York state has a bottle deposit law that rewards people who remove these items from the public recycling stream.

For all the talk about China, what happens to recycling is also quite dependent on local economic geography. In New York, half of all paper waste is recycled at a mill on Staten Island and turned immediately into pizza boxes and other goods for New Yorkers to reconsume. In New England, glass recycling took a huge hit when processing facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island closed in 2018. (Used glass is a substitute for sand in making new glass, which means it has to be cheaper than sand to pencil out for bottle manufacturers. Sand is very cheap. Because glass weighs so much, it stops being cheap when you have to ship it a long way.) Environmental laws also shape local practices. Trash disposal is extremely expensive in New York and Massachusetts, which makes recycling comparatively attractive. In Wisconsin, it’s illegal to landfill cans, bottles, and cardboard.

And then there is the local variance in how we recycle. The Brooklyn MRF (pronounced murf) is state-of-the-art. In one room, a series of ramps and chutes, crisscrossing like Charles Sheeler’s famous photo of River Rouge, comprise the optical sorter, which sifts plastic, glass, and metal into separate grades and bales. Paper and cardboard are compressed separately. Not only does New York’s recycling get sorted by an expensive piece of equipment, but it arrives in the warehouse in two distinct batches: paper and cardboard on one side, plastic, glass and metal on the other. The result is high-quality product.

For a while, making pure bales didn’t seem entirely necessary. Beginning in the late ’90s, right as the Chinese commodity boom was taking off, U.S. waste haulers came up with the idea of single-stream recycling. The generous read on this innovation is that it would encourage Americans to recycle more things at lower costs. It certainly lowered costs: Many trucks became few trucks, with automated pickup technology. Well-paid haulers and drivers—sometimes with union jobs—were replaced with low-paid sorters who stood over a conveyor belt all day, picking out plastic bags and garden hoses.

Did single-stream make Americans worse at recycling, encouraging us to engage in so-called aspirational recycling, trying to send in lawnmower motors, extension cords, and dental floss picks? Maybe. Did single-stream recycling produce a lower-quality good? Indisputably. There’s a reason it is practiced virtually nowhere else in the world. Plastics ended up mixed. Paper was soaked and shredded with glass that had been crushed in the truck, sometimes beyond saving. Between 2005 and 2014—right as Chinese demand was at its peak—single-stream grew from covering 29 percent of American communities to 80 percent.

Did it matter when we could send all that stuff to China? Not really.

“Factories had been saying for years to haulers, ‘This is crap,’ ” says Susan Collins, the executive director of the Container Recycling Institute. “But if we were putting it in a bale and shipping it to China, no one ever saw. The consequences were never borne out here.”

Contamination rates rose, especially in paper and plastic. Some American buyers complained, but China picked up the slack. Others just paid top dollar for well-sorted material.

In China, meanwhile, recyclers did the work we hadn’t done here. Until China pulled out of the market. The conventional wisdom—that the Chinese government was concerned about public health and pollution—makes enough sense. But several observers I spoke to suggested another change was underway: China finally had its own army of consumers, and was trying to jump-start its own domestic recycling program.

The American domestic recycling industry has a few choices while we wait for prices to recover. Cities can quit single-stream recycling and make residents sort things themselves. That’s what Nebraska’s largest recycler did last summer, and what Brookhaven, Long Island, did in November, after its collector broke a contract because it couldn’t sell any of what it was picking up. “There is no market for single-stream. Just no market,” the town supervisor told Newsday.

Municipal recyclers can slow down the conveyor belts at the sorting facilities. That’s what’s happening in Waukesha County, Wisconsin. “We have to have cleaner end product to be able to continue to market it,” says Analiese Smith, the county’s solid waste chief. If workers take more time picking through the stream, the result is a purer bale that’s easier to sell in a buyer’s market.

Cities can invest in more expensive machinery that does this automatically. That’s what is happening in San Francisco, the Twin Cities, and in Phoenix, where brand-new optical sorters will improve the quality of the goods.

Or they can shut down recycling programs completely. The main sorting facility in Memphis, Tennessee, owned by Republic, is no longer accepting commercial recycling from major institutions like the university, the hospital, and the airport, citing contamination. Commodity busts often drive producers out of business: Coal miners stop mining coal in a crash. This one is in some ways even worse. You haven’t stopped ordering cardboard boxes from Amazon or drinking cans of seltzer just because no one wants to buy them now.

Not everyone is so glum. “There was a pretty vibrant recycling industry before China came along, and even though we’re seeing a slowdown in trade, there’s going to be a vibrant recycling industry on the other side too,” says Joe Pickard, the chief economist at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Paper exports actually rose last year, mostly to India and Indonesia. (Though Indonesia has also started to crack down.) Some European officials believe the continent’s recycling industry will emerge stronger than before.

Most recycling has always been domestic, anyway. And with prices so low, a crazy thing is happening: U.S. mills are reopening or expanding to accommodate recycled paper. America was once the papermaker to the world, but was eclipsed by China two decades ago. Now, one of the world’s largest papermakers is the Chinese recycled-paper giant Nine Dragons. Last spring, the company bought two mills in Maine and Wisconsin and announced it would adapt them to process more recycled material. In October, Nine Dragons bought another mill in Maine. In November, it acquired a recycled pulp mill in Fairmont, West Virginia.

A Shanghai-based company called Roy Tech Environ opened a plastics recycling facility in Alabama last summer. Ecomelida, another Chinese recycler, is opening a plastics and paper recycling facility in South Carolina. The plant will turn empty bottles into pellets that will be shipped, of all places, to China, where they’ll be used to make coat hangers and fake plants … which might, eventually, get sold back to you.