Rethinking Recycling: How Cities Can Adapt To Evolving Markets

September 26, 2018

National League of Cities

A new National League of Cities (NLC) report analyzes how city leaders can develop resilient local waste management systems in response to China’s stringent new regulations. The report, which marks the beginning of a larger effort to examine sustainability in solid waste management, is the first piece of literature to highlight how municipalities can effectively respond to – and benefit from – China’s upcoming ban.

Historically, Chinese demand for materials to feed its manufacturing led it to purchase recyclables from all over the world, driving healthy commodity markets in paper, plastics and more. The rest of the industry relied on these sales, not taxes or fees, to fund their collection operations. But China’s new policy, National Sword, is upending this approach. Phase one, which took effect earlier this year, institutes a ban on the two most common U.S. commodity mixes, mixed paper and plastics. The second phase, which will take effect in 2020, will be a total ban on all solid waste imports. This change could potentially diminish markets, cause market fluctuations and reversals, and lower revenues. The U.S. exported 16 million tons of recycling commodities to China per year before the ban. In 2016, these shipments were worth $5.2 billion.

Recycling is seen as a crucial service in many communities. Many Americans recognize its importance to fighting climate change, reducing pollution and limiting municipal landfill costs. The recycling industry also accounts for 757,000 stable jobs, $36.6 billion in wages and $6.7 billion in state, local and federal tax revenues. For many cities this is also a question of equity, as poor people and people of color are disproportionately burdened by waste-contaminated soil and water. In addition, oceanic plastic contamination has come to the fore as a major international crisis. Inefficient waste management practices have led to eight million metric tons of plastic being dumped in the oceans annually. As a result, there is an international dialogue on how cities can work with the recycling industry and other business partners to keep more plastic out of oceans.

Cities like Durango, Fort Collins and Washington, DC are profiled in the report for being proactive, utilizing partnerships and educational campaigns to both increase recycling rates and maintain local control over waste management systems.

Long-term recommendations for city leaders from the report include:
  • Conducting an economic analysis of your current management operations
  • Working with contractors
  • Ensuring fees and rates reflect current costs
  • Evaluating local policies and economic incentives
  • Exploring local and unconventional markets
  • Considering streams
  • Examining asset ownership and considering infrastructure investments.

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