China has quit recycling plastic. Could incineration plug the gap?

A worker at a recycling plant in Beijing considers his machine. Admittedly it’s a water recycling plan, but still. Image: Getty.

China’s decision last year to implement a ban on the import of 24 categories of recyclable materials, including many common plastics used in consumer goods, has shocked recycling systems across the world.

Surplus plastics in the United States and Western Europe appear destined for temporary storage facilities or local landfills in the short run, as trash haulers and municipalities consider changes to their recycling practices.

The fallout, including stockpiles of unrecycled trash, from these events brings to light some of the challenges associated with the global market for recyclable plastic.

Long-term solutions may include exporting plastic to India and other developing countries in Southeast Asia. To reduce the generation of plastic waste, European nations are considering new taxes on the consumption of plastic and increasing recycling content standards.

My own research suggests another opportunity widely practiced in Europe and Southeast Asia: incineration.

How recycling markets work

The global market for recyclable plastic operates like the better-known markets for commodities such as crude oil, gold and copper.

Prices paid for recyclable plastic fluctuate daily in response to changes in global supply and demand. Anyone interested in purchasing plastic need simply submit a bid in the spot market and await a response. After collecting our plastic bottles at the curb, our municipalities rarely interact directly with this market but instead sign long-term contracts with recycling companies.

China had been processing about one-half of the world’s exported recycled materials. Its ban represents a very sharp reduction in the global demand for some forms of plastic, which has decreased these prices. Such low prices should, in theory, deter some suppliers – like the companies that take on all of our recyclable plastic – from presenting the plastic to the market in the first place.

But household plastic recyclers are a little like dairy farmers – they don’t want to stop supplying even though prices might fall to ridiculously low levels. Our society has simply come to expect that our discarded plastic should be recycled, regardless of the price, to avoid it being sent to a landfill or incinerated.

Adding to this market rigidity are state laws that require municipalities to continue to collect our plastic bottles even when recycling companies don’t want to or can’t find anyone to take it. These factors result in a steady supply of plastic even in the lack of a price incentive to recycle it.

Incineration 2.0

Having researched questions related to solid waste recycling and disposal for many years, I believe China’s recent actions provide an excellent opportunity to begin broad new policy discussions before finding another developing country willing to import it.

New taxes and recycled content standards can be considered. But if impure stockpiles of low-grade plastics indeed threaten the natural environment and human health in importing countries, as China has argued, or if shipping these materials across our oceans generates unwanted environmental signatures like islands of plastic, then perhaps it is the time to also (gulp) reconsider incineration.

A modern waste incineration facility, such as this one in Minato City, Japan, can reduce dioxins by burning at high temperatures. There are 19 waste-to-energy plants in Tokyo. Image: Government of Japan.

I could see the “Cadillac plan” for keeping household plastic from landfills and our oceans as the modern incinerator. Americans have never really embraced incineration as an environmentally sound process. NIMBY groups and local politicians have recently opposed plans for new incineration facilities in New York City, Baltimore and Seattle.

The concern has been dioxins and other air pollutants. Dioxins were first detected in the fly ashes of incinerators in the late 1970s. At the time, pollution abatement technology at incinerators consisted solely of electrostatic precipitators – a relatively low-cost filtration technology designed to remove fine dust particles from air streams. But these didn’t work. Dioxins escaped, and releases of dioxins were found to be intensive when combustion temperatures fell between 200 and 600 degrees Celsius.

As these old incinerators finally ceased operations, the percentage of all waste incinerated in the United States has slowly decreased from 16 per cent in 1996 to 13 per cent in 2014.

Many incineration plants, like this one closed one in Chicago, have fallen out of favor in the U.S. over concerns with local air pollutants. Image: Eric Allix Rogers/creative commons.

Modern incinerators currently operating in Europe and Asia employ technologies to sharply reduce dioxins. Furnace temperatures have been raised to levels above 850°C, and methods have been developed to better trap fly ash, better clean the boilers and remove dust. Abatement technology has also been added to reduce nitric oxides and other airborne pollutants. Periods of incinerator startup and shutdown, when furnace temperatures pass the dangerous 200°C to 600°C threshold, are minimised with steady supplies of waste.

As a result, dioxin emissions from incinerators with modern abatement technologies are currently near zero. Modern incinerators also include processes to generate electricity, heat water for district heating services, recycle the metals found in the ashes and build tiles from the remaining slag. Studies have found these incinerators can serve as carbon sinks if the energy they produce displaces coal.

Due to these advances and to European laws that deterred landfilling, incineration has been embraced across Northern Europe and Southeast Asia – pretty much everywhere except the United States.

Why landfills are winning

So why not in the United States?

One reason is the public’s distaste for incineration. Another is the high cost. The cost of operating an environmentally efficient incinerator is difficult to estimate, but is easily more expensive than that of an American landfill or expense associated with recycling – that’s why it’s the Cadillac plan.

Incineration costs are high due to the need to meet air pollution laws by treating post-combustion gases. The cost to incinerate one ton of waste in a modern incinerator can be as high as $300. The cost of landfilling a ton of waste in Texas is only $35 per ton. Garbage generators in Texas won’t be rushing to support incineration anytime soon. Based on my own research, the cost of recycling an average ton of material is somewhere between these two measures.

Incineration and recycling

Incineration has certainly displaced landfilling in Europe and Southeast Asia, but has it also displaced recycling? Incinerators operate cleanest when at full capacity and are thus thirsty for material. That pile of plastic no longer wanted in China is looking pretty good to the hungry incinerator.

To see how recycling might be affected by the recent growth of incineration, I plotted the 2014 rates of incineration and recycling in all Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development countries. It appears that at low levels, incineration and recycling appear to replace landfilling.

As incineration rates in OECD countries rise over a certain point, the rate of recycling starts to dip. Image: Thomas Kinnaman/author provided.

But once incineration rates rise above 40 per cent, recycling starts to fall. Maybe some plastic bottles, manufactured from petroleum and a great fuel source for the incinerator, were not going to China in 2014. Nobody wants to admit that modern incineration has been displacing recycling, but the data appear to support the notion.

Modern incineration is not cheap – expect to pay maybe three times the current cost for waste removal – but studies have shown the environmental signature, as measured by air pollutants, is falling to small or could potentially even have negative carbon emissions when combined with carbon capture.

West Palm Beach, Florida, installed one of these incinerators in June 2015, making it the first incinerator to begin operations in the United States in the past 20 years. Maybe this is a more responsible future than sending containers of Americans’ plastic across the ocean to Africa.

The Conversation

Thomas Kinnaman, Professor of Economics, Bucknell University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.