In 2016, China and Hong Kong accounted for 72 percent of U.S. plastic scrap exports. Also in 2016, China imported $2.3 billion worth of paper and plastic from the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. International Trade Commission.

However, in response to shipments of what the Chinese government calls “foreign waste,” as well as in an effort to bolster its domestic recycling industry, in January, China enacted a ban on the import of 24 types of recyclables. In March, the country began enforcing a new contamination standard of 0.5 percent for the specific types of scrap it would accept. April 19, China then introduced more regulations that will ban an additional 32 types of scrap materials from entering the country by the end of 2019.

With China no longer being a viable option for exports of various scrap materials, recyclers have turned to other countries in Southeast Asia to conduct business. However, countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia also have announced plans to restrict the import of recyclables into their ports, throwing the U.S. recycling industry into a state of confusion many seasoned professionals claim to have never-before experienced.

The 2018 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference, scheduled for Oct. 17-19 at the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile, features programming designed to help recyclers navigate the rapidly changing international trade landscape as well as other challenges while also examining opportunities that exist within the domestic market.

Attendees of the 2017 event visit in the exhibit hall.

“If you’re a recycler as I am, we are the last, if you will, the last of the foot soldiers,” says Steve Sutta, president of The Sutta Co., headquartered in Oakland, California, in an interview posted to YouTube about U.S. recycling and changing Chinese policies. “We’re really on the line. We have to understand that the world is a changing place. We have to understand that things we did five years ago, or 10 years ago or even two years ago are no longer acceptable,” he continues.

Sutta, whose company specializes in providing recycling and sustainability services to corporate clients, is a speaker during the Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference session Alternate Markets to China—India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mexico, Latin America, which is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 18, beginning at 1:30 p.m.

The session provides insights on how to adapt to what Sutta calls a “chaotic” global market. “With the massive changes dictated by the government in China, it’s clear that there’s going to be new recycle capacity that’s going to be put in place in [other] countries,” he says.

Catching up on China

As the longest running conference and trade show serving the paper and plastics recycling sectors, the Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference is a premier event where industry professionals can gather to better understand the rapidly changing recycling market, show organizers say.

Now in its 19th year, the conference is produced by the Recycling Today Media Group, Valley View, Ohio, in coordination with the Paper Stock Industries (PSI) Chapter of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington, and the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), also headquartered in Washington. The partnership among these organizations facilitates relevant conference programming that meets the needs and interests of the current recycling market, organizers say.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to see so many people in the industry: suppliers, mills, equipment people—all at the same time,” says regular attendee Jonathan Sloan, president of Branford, Connecticut-based Canusa Hershman Recycling Co., about the conference. “It’s a very efficient use of time and resources to see all of those different folks in the industry.”

A bulk of this year’s programming relates to navigating the shifting tides around international trade. The first session of this sort, Deep Dive into China’s Impact, featuring Bill Moore from Atlanta-based Moore & Associates, takes place Oct. 17 at 3:45 p.m.

This session, which requires an additional fee, explores the causes of the Chinese policy changes, the ramifications to the U.S. paper recycling industry and potential outcomes moving forward. Moore also plans to discuss demand from other importing countries as well as domestic markets for mixed paper.

Bob Cappadona, vice president of Casella Recycling LLC, Rutland, Vermont, says China’s bans have diverted U.S. materials to domestic markets, forcing a shift in commodity values and affecting communities across the country.

Cappadona, who speaks during the Changing Single Stream session Oct. 18 at 4:30 p.m., says in his 30 years of experience in the recycling industry, the last 12 months have been unprecedented. “It’s so important for everybody from a community level to understand the impacts here.”

Kim Holmes of the Plastics Industry Association

Speakers discuss the future of OCC (old corrugated containers) in the panel OCC and the Future of China’s Paper Business, Oct. 19 at 10 a.m. Panelists analyze China’s future demand potential for OCC, mixed paper substitutes, residential mixed paper pulp and unbleached kraft pulp. The panel also evaluates the effect of China’s scrap import bans on that country’s paper industry.

Elevating efficiency

As industry professionals steer through global market upheaval, they continue to search for money-saving and market opportunities at home. Technology advancements as well as analyses of new trends allow recyclers and material recovery facility (MRF) operators alike to increase efficiency and profitability.

Kim Holmes, vice president of sustainability at PLASTICS, moderates the session Stabilizers and Additives Impacting Plastics Reprocessing. The session, starting at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 17, provides information about the variety of additives available to recyclers, as well as other available advancements designed to increase the value of recycled plastics.

As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more prominent, MRF operators are finding ways to integrate the technology into their daily operations. With AI being relatively new in the recycling sector, it’s unclear to some operators whether implementing the technology is a gamble or a worthy investment. The roundtable discussion, The Impact of AI on Processing and Quality, Oct. 18 starting at 3 p.m., examines the pros and cons of AI in MRF operations, including common issues operators have experienced and how the technology affects a MRF’s bottom line.

At the same time as the AI roundtable, speakers in the Transportation session share insights into transportation trends and the effects they have been having on recyclers. Transportation costs and reliability contribute to a plant’s profitability. This session enables attendees to understand how to take more control in this critical area.

Time to network

In addition to diverse speakers and programming, conference attendees can take advantage of networking breaks throughout the day to meet with other members of the industry and to reflect on the changes and challenges they’re all facing.

With an exhibit hall open throughout the conference and a bowling tournament at Lucky Strike to benefit the PSI Chapter Scholarship Fund, there’s plenty for attendees to do, see and learn.

For more information on the Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference and to register, visit http://paperplasticsna.recycling todayevents.com.

The author is an intern with the Recycling Today Media Group.