How Kansas City Recycling Companies Are Adapting To A Chinese Plastic Waste Import Ban

Kansas City recyclers take heart, for now.

Despite reports that some waste companies in the U.S. are burning recycled paper and plastic or sending it to landfills, processors in the metro are still finding ways to market recycled material.

This follows a move by China, which was the world's largest buyer of plastic waste in 2016, to stop importing more of the stuff. A years-long effort called Operation Green Fence was an effort to reduce that country's own environmental concerns.

"We got comfortable sending them all of our stuff over there, with a high percentage of trash," says Matt Riggs of the Mid-America Regional Council's Solid Waste Management District.

After China closed the door, companies in the Kansas City area were able to leverage their access to recyclables without so much trash, says Tom Coffman, a representative for WCA Waste, which serves parts of the Kansas City area and owns several landfills in Missouri and Kansas.

"We're fortunate here because WCA, and I think other haulers and processors too ... they're good at sorting," Coffman says, "and they have good relationships with companies, so you can always move the material."

Coffman says 70% of the recyclables his company currently sells goes to domestic buyers, who are also demanding cleaner product. Still, he says, nearly a quarter of what comes in from customers is trash. That dilemma has led many waste companies to either think of recycling as a "loss leader" or to stop doing it at all.

"At one time you could collect the material and you could process the material and you could market the material, and you could make a little bit of money. That's not so much the case now," Coffman says. "Public education on what's available and what's acceptable is going to just be a constant, ongoing thing if these programs are going to survive."

Riggs agrees.

"The average (person) out there, you know, can't go over and do an international trade war with China, but what they can do is recycle better," he says.

Public education is critical to the success of recycling programs, says Syed Hassan, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who taught courses and authored a book on waste management.

"This process of educating the public and putting all the magnets on the fridge and all that has been going on for 20, 25 years," he says, "but still it has not sunk in."

In another effort to help, the Mid-America Regional Council has created an educational flier and website to let people in the metro know what can and can't be recycled and where.

Waste processors and municipalities could also do more to inform their customers and taxpayers, says Riggs. Without that knowledge, people's good intentions often increase the challenge of making recycling profitable again.

"It's called 'wishful recycling,'" says Riggs, describing what happens when someone doesn't want to see something go into the trash. That stuff often gets put in the recycling bin with the hopes that it'll get recycled somewhere along the way, he says, "but really all they're doing is moving their trash over to Tom's facility, where he has to throw it away and pay for that."

Still, recycling and waste capacity in Kansas City is pretty much under control, says Hassan. He says China's ban ought to prompt Americans to think of alternative ways to use waste.

"It is a great opportunity to think about turning our waste into energy," he says. "There are about 21 states currently who are doing that."

Kansas and Missouri, however, are not among them.