- 'It's a very good moment for recycling in the United States,' said a recycling expert
- China had long been the world's largest destination for paper, plastic and other recyclables
The halt on China's imports of wastepaper and plastic that has disrupted US recycling programs has also spurred investment in American plants that process recyclables.
US paper mills are expanding capacity to take advantage of a glut of cheap scrap. Some facilities that previously exported plastic or metal to China have retooled so they can process it themselves.
And in a twist, the investors include Chinese companies that are still interested in having access to wastepaper or flattened bottles as raw material for manufacturing.
"It's a very good moment for recycling in the United States," said Neil Seldman, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Washington-based organization that helps cities improve recycling programs.
China, which had long been the world's largest destination for paper, plastic and other recyclables, phased in import restrictions in January 2018.
Global scrap prices plummeted, prompting waste-hauling companies to pass the cost of sorting and baling recyclables on to municipalities. With no market for the wastepaper and plastic in their blue bins, some communities scaled back or suspended curbside recycling programs.
New domestic markets offer a glimmer of hope.
About $1 billion in investment in US paper processing plants has been announced in the past six months, according to Dylan de Thomas, a vice president at The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit organization that tracks and works with the industry.
Hong Kong-based Nine Dragons, one of the world's largest producers of cardboard boxes, has invested $500 million over the past year to buy and expand or restart production at paper mills in Maine, Wisconsin and West Virginia. In addition to making paper from wood fiber, the mills will add production lines turning more than a million tons of scrap into pulp to make boxes, said Brian Boland, Vice President of Government Affairs and Corporate Initiatives for ND Paper, Nine Dragons' US affiliate.
"The paper industry has been in contraction since the early 2000s," Boland said. "To see this kind of change is frankly amazing. Even though it's a Chinese-owned company, it's creating US jobs and revitalizing communities like Old Town, Maine, where the old mill was shuttered."
The Northeast Recycling Council said in a report last fall that 17 North American paper mills had announced increased capacity to handle recyclable paper since the Chinese cutoff.
Another Chinese company, Global Win Wickliffe, is reopening a shuttered paper mill in Kentucky. Georgia-based Pratt Industries is constructing a mill in Wapakoneta, Ohio that will turn 425,000 tons of recycled paper per year into shipping boxes.