THE AMERICAN LANDSCAPE definitely did not look like a Mad Max post-apocalyptic world took root in 2018 once the China Waste Ban went into effect and what we used to send to China started piling up on our shores. I admit I did feel some tiny pangs that we may have to dress up as “Road Warriors” after seeing a number of headlines throughout the year predicting doom and gloom.
In June 2018, The Verge posted the headline, “China’s plastic waste ban will leave 111 million tons of trash with nowhere to go.” USA Today used, “The US used to ship 4,000 recyclable containers a day to China. Where will the banned trash go now?” A couple of months later a Wall Street Journal headline read, “U.S. Recycling Companies Face Upheaval from China Scrap Ban.”
There is no doubt that China Sword has disrupted the waste and recycling industry to its core. Thousands of tons of plastic recyclables continue to pile up at MRFs and transfer stations across the country and beyond. But like Mel Gibson’s character, Mad Max, we’re segueing from one sequel into another.
2018 is in the books and we’re gearing up for 2019. I asked David Biderman, SWANA’s CEO and Executive Director, what he believes will be the waste and recycling industry’s biggest challenge in the coming year. He told me, “I believe the challenges facing recycling will continue to be the industry’s biggest challenge in 2019. If prices remain low and other foreign markets follow China’s lead and impose restrictions on imported scrap and recyclables, some local governments will be forced to make some difficult decisions.”
Do we have the resources to overcome those challenges? Biderman says, “There are a number of things happening that, taken together, make me cautiously optimistic about recycling’s long-term health in the United States. First, a substantial amount of domestic capacity will be coming online starting in 2019. Second, everyone in the recycling supply chain is working collaboratively to address the current challenges. Third, EPA has become a more visible and vocal facilitator of solutions and is expected to issue an Action Plan in 2019 that will provide important guideposts for local governments, recyclers, purchasers of recyclables, environmentalists, and other stakeholders.”
We’re not going to walk off into a dusty horizon just yet. There are still plenty of other waste management issues and topics to keep an eye on in the coming months. If I were to make predictions, I would start by saying collection fleet electrification will start taking bigger steps. I think that more waste to energy facilities will be built or modernized. Big data collection, analysis, and management is about to become an integral part of waste and landfill management.
But where I would like to see the most progress being made is in safety. The latest numbers from the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that waste collection is still the fifth deadliest job in the country. Collection workers suffered 32 on-the-job fatalities in 2017 compared to 31 in 2016. Preliminary numbers from SWANA are showing nearly 50 solid waste employee fatalities for 2018 through December 15.
There’s a lot of work to be done this year. Hopefully it follows the plot of all the Road Warrior movies, in which life is hard; it gets even harder; to make life easier, a plan is made; the plan is executed with some hiccups. Finally, in the end, we all walk away as heroes.