Why the future of recycling depends on the government

March 09, 2022
Industry Report: Why the future of recycling depends on government involvement.

As a manufacturer of containers, carts, and dumpsters, Toter builds convenient, durable products that last longer and work harder. Because at Toter, part of the Wastequip family of companies, collecting and transporting waste and recycling from its source to where it belongs is our business. 

For many years, U.S. recycling has been dependent on one international partner, China, more than any other to be the destination for much of that waste. Over the last several decades, the U.S. exported millions of tons of plastic, paper, and metals to China for recycling. 

As a result, the U.S. domestic recycling infrastructure for collecting, sorting, processing, and re-selling/re-manufacturing of recyclable materials has not grown at a fast enough rate to handle the amount of recyclable trash generated in our country. 

Now that the flow of recyclables to China has dwindled, and global recycling markets are shrinking, the U.S. needs an economical and efficient national recycling strategy, with coordination at the local, state, and federal levels. 

How We Got Here: 

China’s manufacturing sector was booming for decades. To keep pace, the country needed materials flowing to factories. Because the U.S., along with some other countries, was one of the world’s largest producers of waste and recyclables, China was soon handling “some 70 percent of the world’s plastic waste went to China – about 7 million tons a year.”

China used much of that recycled material to fuel their manufacturing boom. But unfortunately, due to a number of factors, namely contamination, much of this material was never recycled, and ended up polluting China’s countryside, rivers, coastline, and the Pacific Ocean.

In 2018, China changed everything in the recycling world when it banned importation of many plastics. In response, the U.S. began sending plastic recycling to other countries. First to Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand, until bans in those countries forced the U.S. to divert its recycling again, this time to Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Laos, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Senegal. Much of this recyclable material was contaminated by non-recyclable material and thus was unusable and discarded in areas with lax environmental laws.

Without the foreign market for recyclable plastic, as well as certain types of cardboard, paper, and glass, the U.S. recycling industry has undergone a great deal of strain, and has struggled to adapt.  As a result, U.S. processing facilities and municipalities have either had to pay more to recycle or have simply discarded their waste. Some municipalities have cut services entirely, or limited what they collect. 

Solutions to the recycling problem.

The U.S. does not yet have a federal recycling program. Decisions are made on a local and statewide level — currently about 20,000 separate communities in the U.S. That means recycling in the U.S. is dependent on a loose network of communities, recyclers, haulers, manufacturers, and consumers, with many different and sometimes competing interests, all trying to find solutions. 

In 2020, more than 37 states considered over 250 bills to deal with plastic pollution and recycling. California SB 1383, for example, requires residents and companies to separate their waste into three streams, with different colored bins and totes for recyclables, organics, and landfill. To help our customers comply with this new law, Toter has already released a line of compliant organics bins and carts.. Alongside Toter®, other Wastequip brands have new SB 1383-compliant products and services such as  Container Pros® auditing and other services which are available to municipalities, haulers, and other customers. 

Another measure taken by institutions or governments is to limit the disposal of construction and demolition debris and encourage recycling instead. Austin, Texas, for example, requires large construction projects to reuse or recycle at least half of their debris.

Programs such as these help to set up a system that then allows for the growth of markets for reused and recycled materials, as well as the facilities that can process them here in the U.S.  Toter is also doing its part to help reduce the amount of recyclable waste by developing  the revolutionary EVR Green cart, with the first-ever 100% recycled cart body.

The Chinese government’s disruption of the recycling industry may ultimately benefit the U.S. As more communities and municipalities prioritize recycling initiatives, and as more consumers continue to demand recycling as a service, the recycling industry has an opportunity to make investments that will help it gain efficiency and provide greater value to the domestic manufacturing supply chain. Government policy and infrastructure spending, at the local, state, and federal levels, can help the U.S. cope with its current recycling challenges, and position the nation to extract maximum value from its recyclables, transforming an environmental and economic liability into a valuable asset. 

Our commitment to company and industry evolution is exhibited in our CORE (COrporate REsponsibility) program, which focuses on forward-looking thinking and leadership in the areas of sustainability, compliance, diversity and social consciousness. And it carries through in our robust recycling and organics lines, our impactful product innovations such as the EVR Green cart,, and our other company initiatives such as Project 25, our Toter brand’s commitment to reducing the amount of virgin resin used in its cart manufacturing by 25%.

Wastequip is North America’s leading manufacturer of waste-handling equipment. But from a sustainability standpoint, we’re much more than that. With a family of 10-plus brands spanning nearly every aspect of the waste industry, our breadth of programs, products and services puts us in a unique position to lead the way toward a more eco-friendly future for both our industry and our planet — and it’s a responsibility we take seriously. 


Want to learn more about Wastequip's environmentally-conscious solutions? Reach out today


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