Recycling garbage is now a vital part of protecting the environment worldwide. The process depends on advanced legislation that targets old industries, especially in developed countries.
Less well known are recycling’s chronic problems. It depends on the Chinese market, it competes with original raw materials, and it is difficult to separate material in demand from piles of garbage. These problems are getting worse and threaten the recycling process in many countries, including Israel.
The great upheaval of the recycling industry started after China toughened its demands regarding the trash it receives for recycling. Last month the Wall Street Journal published a report on the impact of this crisis on the United States opening with: “The U.S. recycling industry is breaking down” (May 13).
The article described the difficulties American factories encounter in shipping cardboard, paper waste and plastic to recycling destinations in China. A large part of the trash eventually ends up in landfills, just like in the pre-cycling era.
China decided it could no longer accept waste from countries like the United States because it had combined several kinds of trash. This created safety problems and exposed local employees to contaminants. In the past China agreed to accept garbage consisting of up to 20 percent of other materials. For the past four months it has been demanding that the contaminants’ limit be slashed to 0.5 percent. These measures are forcing recycling plants to invest more effort into sorting waste. The repercussions can be seen in the case of Pacific Rim Cycling in California, which has furloughed almost all its employees.
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“The cost is impossible. We can’t make money at it,” company president Steve Moore told WSJ. “We quit accepting stuff.”
The Chinese stopped accepting mixed paper waste (several kinds of paper) provided by such plants and now huge amounts of paper collected for recycling are piling up.
China isn’t the only problem, a comprehensive report about plastic recycling published last month by the OECD finds. The demand for recycled plastic depends to a large extent on the original material’s supply. With no independent demand, the recycling industry is vulnerable to fluctuating prices of the original plastic, which plunge every time oil prices dip.
Another difficulty is the competition with trash-burning energy-producing facilities, which receive large amounts of waste. There is also great difficulty in handling recycled material, which is mostly contaminated with other trash, such as food remains and chemicals. It too consists of several kinds of plastic, which complicates the separation process of the desired material. PET – a plastic with an especially high recycling rate – is a special case. The report says its price also depends on cotton prices, as textile companies in China use its fibers as substitute when cotton prices soar.
The Israeli recycling industry is small and can pick and choose its clients and markets, the Environmental Protection Ministry says. But Israeli factories are also contending with some of the same challenges affecting other countries – first and foremost the effective separation of good quality material.
The Aviv AMCG management and consulting firm, which runs the Ran Bitton forum for environmental planning, last week held a conference entitled “Waste is changing direction – from nuisance to an energy resource.” The gathering was held in partnership with the Goldfarb Seligman law firm and the Porter School of Environmental Studies in Tel Aviv University. Among the speakers were Offer Bogin, CEO of Greennet, Jerusalem’s waste management facility and Amos Rabin, CEO of the Dan Cities Association for Sanitation and Waste Disposal, which is in charge of the Hiriya landfill and its large waste management facility. These facilities handle close to a third of all Israel’s urban waste.
According to Bogin and Rabin, these two facilities succeed in extracting only 15 percent of the waste for recycling. “The main difficulty is the material’s lack of homogeneity,” Rabin said. “If its composition isn’t homogeneous, the industry cannot handle it. So it’s hard to impossible to recycle waste.”
Bogin says the waste handled by Jerusalem’s waste management facility hardly undergoes any separation, which makes it difficult to extract good-quality ingredients for recycling. Recently the Amnir company, a subsidiary of Hadera Paper, stopped taking the paper waste the facility had separated. “We stopped taking the mixed paper because there was too much organic material in it,” said Gadi Konia, Hadera Paper CEO. “It creates humidity that damages the paper quality and harms our machines.”
Konia said his plant still takes the good-quality cardboard separated at Greennet and believes Hadera Paper handles about half of Israel’s paper waste.
Despite the numerous difficulties, the local and global recycling industry is not likely to disappear. “Indeed, China’s restriction of recycling waste sent shock waves through the recycling market, but policy isn’t determined by the market’s changing situation but by a deep and thorough analysis,” says Gilad Ostrovsky, director of the sustainability and environment division in the Misgav Regional Council, who recently completed his doctorate on manufacturers’ responsibility for the waste they produce.
Ostrovsky says waste management policy is shaped on sustainability principles: preserving resources, saving energy and striving for circular economy, which reuses resources. He notes that the European Union continues to support and encourage recycling and lists successful cases, like the Belgian recycling corporation Fost Plus, which served as a model for the Israeli industry.
Last year the corporation recycled 89.1 percent of domestic packaging. The business recycling rate is even higher. Fost Plus’ edge is in its high-quality recycled materials, which are in high demand. “This shows the economic value of good separation,” Ostrovsky says. “The Chinese crisis is an opportunity to facilitate the development of local management facilities and strengthen the national economy.”
The OECD report offers several steps to help the world recycling market, such as setting recycling goals in more countries, government aid to build and operate advanced sorting facilities and compelling manufacturers not to include additives in products like plastic. The report recommends helping developing states set up recycling industries and thus reduce huge amounts of waste dumped.
Some manufacturers aren’t waiting for government assistance. One of Britain’s largest plastic bottle manufacturers Princes set a 50 percent recycling target for plastic bottles within months, after Evian vowed to use 100 percent recycled plastic bottles for all its water by 2025. In Israel, Greennet is examining the possibility of setting up a facility to recycle diapers.