Could Robots Make U.S. Recyclables Exportable Again?

The Lempert Report: China declared "foreign waste" includes too many other non-recyclable materials.

The U.S. exports about one-third of our recycled waste, and nearly half goes to China. China has used recyclables from around the world to supply its manufacturing boom for decades. On Jan. 1, 2018, all of that stopped. In a filing with the World Trade Organization, the country listed 24 kinds of solid wastes it would ban to "protect China's environmental interests and people's health." The country declared that "foreign waste" includes too many other nonrecyclable materials that are "dirty," or even "hazardous." 

In the past, China has sorted through all the waste and separated out the recycled goods to use. NPR reports that now the Chinese are not buying waste from the U.S., recycling companies are faced with a quandary and the garbage is piling up. 

Adina Adler, a senior director with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, told NPR that China's new standards are nearly impossible to meet. The group is trying to persuade China to walk back its demanding target for how clean the U.S.'s recycling exports need to be. But Adler doesn't think China's decision is all bad.

"What China's move is doing is probably ushering in a new era of recycling," she said. 

One company, Bulk Handling Systems, is betting that robots can be the future of recycling.  CEO Steve Miller says the robot uses cameras and artificial intelligence to separate recycling from trash "in the same way that a person would do it," but faster and more accurately. 

Miller believes technology like this could let the U.S. make its recycling clean enough for China. But until that happens, the waste will pile up and most of it will go into landfills that will create problems for future generations.


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