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Recycling Industry Slows As Consumers Shop Less

The prices of some recycled raw materials have fallen dramatically. In Beijing, workers collect assorted plastic products at a recycling center on the outskirts of the city on Dec. 17.
Guang Niu
Getty Images
The prices of some recycled raw materials have fallen dramatically. In Beijing, workers collect assorted plastic products at a recycling center on the outskirts of the city on Dec. 17.

At Paper Fiber Americas, a wastepaper exporter in Portland, Ore., tons of cans, beer boxes, newsprint and plastic jugs form a huge mountain of recycling. John Dryden, who runs the exporting operation, says when he looks at the large pile of trash, he normally sees money.

But recently, Dryden's business has been transformed by countless consumers who are opting to buy less. Those small, individual choices to hold off on certain purchases put fewer boxes under their Christmas trees and mean there's less cardboard and paper to recycle.

The Healthy Recycling System

Here's how it normally works: You put your recycling out on the curb or take it to the recycling center. Someone picks it up and brings it to a sorting center where all the cardboard and newsprint gets separated and baled up. Dryden then buys the recyclable material and sells it to China and other parts of Asia.

"China does not have an indigenous source of fiber supply," Dryden says, "so they have to import recycled paper. And they use that to make new boxes and those boxes can go to package goods that are exported to the U.S. and Europe."

The past couple of years have been incredibly good to wastepaper exporters. Demand from Asia is huge, and speaking just in terms of volume, wastepaper is one of America's top exports.

All summer, business was going well for Dryden. Then, in October, he got a call from his sales team in China with a warning: Hundreds of containers were arriving there full of wastepaper, and no one was picking them up.

"At the time I heard that, I was a little skeptical because we hadn't seen that kind of activity before," Dryden says. "But several weeks later, we started seeing it with virtually every customer."

That means customers in China had ordered wastepaper from Dryden's company, but when it arrived, they declined it. Bales and bales of abandoned cardboard and newsprint were sitting at Chinese ports as prices — which were high from July until October — dropped precipitously.

"Material that was selling for $150 a ton was now selling for $20," Dryden says. "That was pretty breathtaking. We had not seen that kind of behavior happen before."

A Recycling Butterfly Effect?

So, what happened? Well, hundreds of thousands of people didn't buy the TVs they wanted. Millions more didn't buy kitchen appliances, dolls or shoes. That means factories in China started making fewer cheap electronics and dolls and shoes and needed fewer boxes to put all that stuff in.

That's not only bad news for Dryden and wastepaper exporters; it brings up a completely different question: If China doesn't want recycling from the U.S. anymore, what happens to it?

"Recycling is based on an economic need for that material," Dryden says. Without one, he adds, the material might not get recycled. "We saw that with some of our accounts — the landfill option was the cheapest option."

Chana Joffe-Walt reports for member station KPLU.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chana Joffe-Walt