Do Green Fences Make Good Neighbors?

You’re a good person. You make an effort to keep MSU as green as possible. You don’t litter. You recycle paper, soda cans and batteries. Heck, you even “recycle” text books from year to year.

So what’s the big deal if you don’t rinse your plastic utensils off before dropping them in the recycling bin? It never mattered before, so why is there a big push now?

The answer to that is called Operation Green Fence, which lies somewhere between your departmental kitchen sink and China. And it’s having an enormous impact on how environmentally friendly we can be at MSU.

The Big Green Fence

greenfenceTo understand what’s happening, you first have to know that for years, one of America’s biggest exports to China has been scrap and waste. Yes, that’s right:
Scrap and waste have been at or near the top of the Chinese export list for many years, even surpassing soybeans and aircraft parts at times. It’s a profitable export for the US — totaling $11.3 billion in 2011 alone. (It’s important to remember that scrap and waste aren’t necessarily garbage; they can be used as the raw material for new products. In essence, China and other countries help process these materials into their next best and highest use.)
There are many other markets and purchasers for scrap and waste—including domestic processors— and Michigan State works very hard to “recycle local” whenever possible. But China is by far the largest destination for a lot of scrap, and when the biggest player on the block makes a dramatic policy shift, the effects ripple through all markets worldwide.

Operation Green Fence is an effort introduced in 2013 by Chinese environmental and customs officials to be more stringent about the state of imported waste and to strengthen the supervision of environmental standards. The program brought about a huge increase in customs inspections. Whereas only a fraction of containers were investigated in the past, now nearly all are examined under tight contamination standards. If your container isn’t up to snuff, the shipment is rejected and charged a storage fee until it’s shipped back to the sender.

In essence, this means that a great deal of the plastic, paper and other scrap recycling that used to be accepted as saleable to China no longer makes the grade, as any shipment found to have a single contaminant could be turned away. Since the program began nearly a year ago, more than 800,000 tons of recyclable materials are estimated to have been rejected by China.

When the world’s largest market for scrap and waste has dramatically reduced its intake, the excess has to go somewhere. The glut of materials can flood local markets, where processors aren’t equipped to handle huge increases in volume. And just like they told you in Econ 101, excess supply means lower demand, so the excess materials are driving scrap prices to rock bottom—even for organizations like MSU, that have been using domestic processors for many years.

The Impact at MSU

plasticschartThe impact at Michigan State has been acute. All the plastics we would like to recycle are now under increased scrutiny, and contaminants such as food waste are a big problem no matter what market we use for recyclables.

Our goal has always been to keep the MSU community as green as possible by keeping material out of landfills. So we’ve upped our game, putting a significant amount of time into hand-sorting plastics, striving to meet the “triple-rinse” standard requested by the processors. But this also means we have less revenue from those recyclables to put toward other sustainability efforts.

Case in point: While we’re recycling more and more plastic by weight, the amount of revenue generated—and consequently the price per pound—has dropped significantly. In just the third quarter of 2013, we generated approximately $12,000 less than the materials would have generated 18 months prior.

So What’s Next?

No one is quite sure what’s next for Operation Green Fence. China may revert back to its original standards of accepting materials, in which case this is just a blip on the radar screen. Or, if this is a more permanent change in contamination standards (as many think likely), big changes to the whole recycling industry could be in store:

  • Domestic markets for purchasing scrap and waste could increase as processors tool up for higher volumes. Many hadn’t done so in the past due to the high costs associated with cleaning the recycled raw material.
  • Unfortunately, some organizations that currently recycle materials may decide the new standards are too high, and send their recyclables to landfills instead.
  • However, there are opportunities for communities that want to produce cleaner recyclable materials: everything from keeping their own recyclables cleaner at the outset, to becoming a secondary “cleaning processors” of recyclable raw materials for others.
  • In short, this single program, instituted halfway across the globe, is having direct ramifications at MSU. As always, we’re working to stay at the top of our game when it comes to sustainability efforts, and we’ll continue to Be Spartan Green in any way we can—including meeting the new standards to keep as much material out of landfills as possible.

Help Get Green-and-White Scrap Past China’s Green Fence

What can you do to stay green and help MSU’s sustainability efforts in light of Project Green Fence?  A few tips:

  1. If you’re in an office or area that has a sink with a garbage disposal, give your plastic dishes a thorough rinse before putting them in the recycling bin. Your officemates and/or roommates will also thank you.
  2. If you don’t have a garbage disposal in your office’s sink, take any containers home to rinse before recycling.
  3. Whatever you do, DON’T put wet paper plates or food-laden plastics in recycling bins.  C’mon, that’s just gross, and it means someone else has to pick through your leftover food so it doesn’t contaminate a whole container of recycling.
  4. Use washable materials for meal time: Class up the joint and keep a set of real plates/silverware in your office or room. Use-Rinse-Wash-Repeat.
Posted in Contamination, Home, Markets, Plastics, Recycling, Uncategorized.

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