China Quits Recycling U.S. Trash As Sustainable Start-Up Makes Strides

In November, I wrote that China was giving up taking American (and European) recyclables. Local trash deposits were telling me this as far back as August, that they had no one to take container fulls of broken glass and plastic containers. I was advised to just throw it in the standard kitchen trash bag.

MORE FROM FORBESChina Doesn’t Want The World’s Trash Anymore. Including ‘Recyclable’ Goods.

But now it’s 2021, and there’s a new government coming to town in 10 short days. They are all about protecting the environment. China’s not interested in helping us protect ours by taking our garbage. Even when China (and India) was taking our recyclables, most of it was ending up in mountains of trash in poor provinces anyway.

Yup, your Voss water bottle was not being melted down into a new Voss water bottle, or a Poland Spring water bottle for that matter.

In fact, some towns don’t know what to do with this stuff anymore. Costs are rising to dispose of it. Henrico County, Virginia is considering charging people more money for recycling. We may get to a point where some towns no longer have a recycling center at their landfill.

“We don’t have the waste infrastructure in the U.S. to do recycling because we send mostly all of it to China and there is no secondary end market for recycled goods,” says Julianna Keeling, founder and CEO of Terravive in Richmond, Va. The five-year-old company makes biodegradable materials from plant-based sources and other organic compounds that break down easier in water, landfills, or your backyard leaf pile.

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“Only a small percentage of the recycled goods end up as another recycled good anyway. Most of what is happening to it is that it just goes into foreign landfills,” she says. On China’s action, Keeling calls it a “big deal” because it takes out the entire cost equation from recycling. It’s no longer cheap now that less of it can just be disappeared in China.

Terravive (they Americanized it. It’s pronounced how it is spelled phonetically) is one of a handful of new companies that have sprouted up over the years to tackle the mass of recycled goods. Some make plant-based plates, or paper straws that can be broken down in nature. Terravive makes to-go containers, forks, spoons and cups.

I have been speaking to Julianna on and off since August and thought of her again when I was about to recycle an Olive Garden to-go container. Yes, I ate Olive Garden with family. Sorry, foodies. Forgive me.

I thought right away, I know a better solution for the OG to get its food to all those pandemic to-go orders without worrying about old school recycling. It’s these guys.

Last week on their LinkedIn page, Terravive claimed that they put Five Guys Burgers & Fries to the test in their packaging. No leaking. No mess. Better for Gaia (that’s Mother Earth — I think).

If we want to get serious about recycling and move away from dependence on China for everything from solar panels to plastics and metals recycling, then the U.S. either has to build a better recycling system or make sustainable, single-use items that do not have to be part of a largely failed and filthy, global recycling mess.

There are other materials that can perform just like plastic but breaks down in days, months, or years, not decades or centuries.

Keeling, a graduate in the chemical and environmental sciences at Washington & Lee University, started the company out of her parent’s garage and a home office. The goal was to make a material that ultimately did not require consumers and businesses to sacrifice the convenience and storage of plastic cutlery and traditional plastic or styrofoam to-go containers. 

She focused on R&D for the first three years, learning the market and playing around with product lines. Her first was a biodegradable blood pressure sleeve, traditionally made out of plastic, and disposable. They are mostly used in emergency rooms.

“The idea was to make something that could be functional, look and perform just like its plastic alternative and could break down like a leaf or an orange peel in the environment,” she says. They don’t make that anymore. “We focus on the foodservice space, which is especially big today with all this takeout demand caused by Covid,” she says.

In 2019, she hired a man named Joe Swider, a 1988-1992 Navy Veteran who later spent his working years in the manufacturing and engineered materials space. They’ve grown since Swider focused on commercialization. They’re responsible for about 1,000 jobs, which includes their outsource manufacturers. Their product line has over 70 items.

“We’ve grown over the last year and a half since Joe joined us,” Keeling says.

President-Elect Joe Biden is concerned about the environment. He believes that one way to grow the economy out of the pandemic is something like the proposed Green New Deal. Environmentally sustainable infrastructure, and businesses, should do well, in theory, under a government that seeks to promote such endeavors. That is especially true if it is U.S. focused, rather than relying on imports to do it all.

“A lot of the companies that do this are getting their raw materials from abroad,” says Swider. Most of that would be chemical compounds, things like starch-based materials. “There are companies out there doing what we do, but most manufacture elsewhere,” he says.

Terravive is mostly selling their to-go containers to state and local governments and restaurants. Anyone that is packaging food and has no plans on washing your dishes.

“Beyond COVID, even if China does start taking all our plastic again, many states are banning single-use plastics and styrofoam anyway,” says Swider. That’s cutlery, plastic bags, plastic straws.

The convenience of throwing everything in a recycle bin will give way to the convenience of not having to worry about recycling the way we used to. The Five Guys Terravive to-go box can be thrown in a compost pile. It doesn’t need to be crammed into your kitchen recycle bin; or taken to the local recycling center. It will never be put on a boat and shipped to some poor country for the locals to rifle through for pennies.

“People under 30 care about sustainability and having eco-friendly options and that is where we come in,” Swider says. When asked if he had an exit strategy, he said: “No one is taking us over; we are going to take other people over.”

Back to China, their State Council first introduced new rules banning the import of “foreign garbage” in 2017, halting the import of four categories of solid waste, including scrap plastics. 

By mid-2018, in response to the trade war, China said that it will stop companies from importing solid waste (unrecyclable, often toxic and hazardous waste) by December 2020.

In March 2018, China’s environment minister at the time, Li Ganjie, noted that China used to import around 4 to 4.5 million tons of solid, unrecyclable trash. Twenty years later, the volume of solid waste had grown to 45 million tons.

China’s imports of waste – including recyclables – has been in decline over the last year. Imports of scrap plastic have almost totally stopped due to the trade war. China said that most of the plastic was garbage, and too dirty to recycle.

Based on 2018 Census Bureau export data for shipments of plastic waste generated in the U.S. and sent to other countries, about 157,000 large 20-ft shipping containers (429 per day) of U.S. plastic waste was shipped to China and other countries, countries that are not known to be recycled plastic users or exporters.

Plastic wastes from these shipments and their final destinations, mostly in poor Asian nations and parts of Africa, are the sources of plastic pollution in the ocean, according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

India is also a notorious hub of mounds of recyclable waste going nowhere. It is unclear if they will pick up where China is ending off.

The actual amount of U.S. plastic waste that ends in countries with poor waste management may be even higher than 78% since countries like Canada and South Korea — recipients of those recyclables — usually just reexport that waste to China.

Are new sustainable, biodegradable packaging alternatives the solution? Or is this just another chemical waste dump breaking down into rivers and oceans?

“I get asked questions about how the chemicals are and how it breaks down for ecotoxicity,” Keeling says, claiming they’ve tested for all the chemicals they use and none of them released harmful toxins when they broke down.

“The way our products breakdown is that animals and insects eat our materials like food and will excrete carbon dioxide, oxygen, water, and biomass,” she says, barring putting a to-go order in a leaf basket… “This is as natural as you can get.”

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