Stopping imports of paper and plastic waste from China, which has disrupted recycling programs in the United States, has also boosted investment in US recycling plants.
US paper mills are increasing their capacity to take advantage of an overabundance of cheap waste. Some facilities that previously exported plastic or metal to China have re-equipped themselves to process them themselves.
Investors include Chinese companies that still want access to old paper or flattened bottles as raw material for manufacturing.
"It's a great time for recycling in the United States," said Neil Seldman, co-founder of the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance that helps cities improve their programs. recycling.
China, which has long been the world's leading destination for paper, plastic and other recyclables, has gradually imposed import restrictions from January 2018.
World scrap prices have fallen, pushing waste transportation companies to transfer the cost of sorting and baling recyclables to municipalities. In the absence of a market for paper and plastic waste in their blue bins, some communities have reduced or suspended curbside recycling programs.
New domestic markets offer a glimmer of hope.
Dylan de Thomas, Vice President of The Recycling Partnership, a non-profit organization that follows and collaborates with industry, announced in the last six months a nearly $ 1 billion investment in processing plants paper in the United States.
The Hong Kong company Nine Dragons, one of the world's largest producers of cardboard boxes, has invested $ 500 million over the past year to buy and develop or restart the production of paper mills in the Maine, Wisconsin and West Virginia.
In addition to making paper from wood fiber, factories will add production lines turning over a million tonnes of scrap into pulp to make boxes, said Brian Boland, vice president of government affairs. and corporate initiatives at ND Paper, an American subsidiary of Nine Dragons. .
"The paper industry is in contraction since the early 2000s," said Boland. "Seeing this kind of change is frankly amazing, even though it's a Chinese company, it's creating jobs in the United States and revitalizing communities like Old Town, Maine, where the old factory was closed. "
The Northeast Recycling Council announced in a report last fall that 17 paper mills in North America had announced an increase in their recyclable paper processing capacity since the closure of the Chinese market.
Another Chinese company, Global Win Wickliffe, is reopening a shutter paper mill in Kentucky. The Georgian company Pratt Industries is building a plant in Wapakoneta, Ohio, which will turn 425,000 tons of recycled paper a year into shipping cartons.
Plastics also have a large capacity for online production, Thomas said, noting that new plants or expanding plants in Texas, Pennsylvania, California and North Carolina are turning recycled plastic bottles into new ones. bottles.
Chinese companies are investing in plastic and scrap recycling plants in Georgia, Indiana, and North Carolina to manufacture raw materials for manufacturers in China, he said.
In New Brunswick, New Jersey, recycling company GDB International has exported plastic film balls, such as pallet wrappers and grocery bags. But when China began to restrict imports, the company's president, Sunil Bagaria, installed new machines to turn it into pellets, which it sells profitably to garbage bag and plastic pipe manufacturers .
He added that cutting imports that China calls "the national sword" was a much needed reminder to his industry.
"The export of plastic waste has greatly helped to facilitate recycling in our country," Bagaria said. "The disadvantage is that the infrastructure needed for our own home recycling has not developed."
The situation is changing, he said, but it will take much more processing capacity in the country, as an increasing number of countries limit waste imports.
"In the end, sooner or later, the company that produces plastic waste will be responsible for recycling it," he said.
It also remains to be seen whether the new commissioned plants will be able to quickly solve the problems of municipal recycling programs that relied heavily on sales to China to get rid of piles of waste.
"Chinese companies are investing in factories, but until we know what the demand is for these factories, we're stuck in this rut," said Ben Harvey, whose Westborough, Massachusetts, company collects waste and recyclables for about 30%. communities.
A year ago, after the closure of China, he had occupied a parking lot filled with stored paper, but had finally found buyers in India, Korea and Indonesia.
Keith Ristau, CEO of Far West Recycling in Portland, Oregon, said most of the recyclable plastic that his company collects was usually used in China. Now, most are going to processors in Canada or California.
To meet its standards, Far West has invested in better equipment and more workers in its material recovery facilities to reduce contamination.
In Sarepta, Louisiana, IntegriCo Composites converts mixed plastic bales that are difficult to recycle into railway ties. It expanded in 2017 with funding from Closed Loop Partners, based in New York.
"As US investors in recycling and circular economy infrastructures in the United States, we see what China has decided to do as being very positive," said Ron Gonen, founder of Closed Loop.