Category Archives: update

Why are we scapegoating “China Sword”?

The following is a largely stream-of-thought article on the recycling side of waste management systems in North America. I could have used “United States” instead, but this issue is broader in scope than that. Many people are using the term “crisis” regarding a change in Chinese policy. I think we can learn more if we approach the issue as “from crisis, opportunity“. This is my own work and does not reflect the policies or opinions of my employer, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

When it comes to the recycling side of the solid waste industry in 2019 there is one King Kong-sized boogeyman. High Prices? Bad Markets? Excessive Transport Costs? All those problems and more are thrown at the feet of “China Sword“, one of the names given to a Chinese pivot away from importing post-consumer recyclables from North America. This policy is tied to surging costs and shrinking profits in the waste management industry.

The Chinese Recycling Market Genesis Story goes like this: For over 20 years China’s expanding manufacturing industries were sending container ships full of consumer goods to the North America. These ships would unload at a major port such as Long Beach, CA, but there were insufficient corresponding North American exports to fill the containers for the return trip. The economics of transporting a load of empty containers back to China were terrible, so bringing back *anything* was preferable. Thus a “black hole” for post-consumer materials was born. Those containers were filled with post-consumer recyclable material from North American households and businesses. From the North American perspective it was a miracle. No domestic processing requiring labor and machinery and electricity was required, only cheap rail shipments to the west coast, and the material was GONE. On the Chinese side the main end product for these materials was packaging for Chinese electronics and other consumer products, which would be exported to North America, and then theoretically returned to China to be born again as new packaging.

If that sounds too good to be true, it was. The quality of the material being delivered to North American docks was terrible. Much of it had high rates of contamination, or worse, involved good looking material on the outside and garbage on the inside. It is likely that none of this material would have been accepted for processing at a North American facility. As we will see, the costs involved in removing that contamination strip the materials of their intrinsic value. It was not long before the Chinese decided they would not be a dumping ground for this poor quality material. None of this was (or should have been) a surprise to North American brokers. Any serious student of recycling processes, markets, materials, and policies is not buying onto a “magical end market”. The charade continued until the proverbial well ran dry. At that point a crisis was born. China hit the brakes. Where importing poor-quality recycled materials may have been economically sound at one time, that time came to an end. China’s economic path from a producer of trinkets to a producer of iPhones led to a mature modern economy, with global economic ties and massive earnings.

It appeared to be a sudden reversal from the perspective of the US. But how could it have been. Waste management is a multi-billion dollar industry, employing economists, international business analysts, experts in everything from curbside collection to trade policy, and it revolves around the banking industry. That banking industry is doing their own due diligence. How could the entire industry, the transportation industry, and their financiers have overlooked this iceberg? My cynicism tells me they didn’t.

Much like the Chinese consumer goods of the 2000’s, North American recyclables were overwhelmingly destined for export markets. There had been very little investment in processing infrastructure on this side of the Pacific. Likewise, there had been no reason for collection programs to stress high quality over sheer volume. The export markets had not demanded it, and domestic markets were glad to limit themselves to materials such as white office paper and high-quality plastics, both known for low contamination rates and high value. Pre-Sword, if a municipal collection program was getting paid $20/ton for mixed recyclables, why would there be a reason to worry? As seen from the generation/collection side of the process it seemed like a status quo had been established, and there was very little indication it would change. Processors were offering 5- and 10-year contracts with guaranteed rebates. Generators and trash haulers were writing those rebates into their cash-flow calculations. Ah… Good Times! Not many were aware that this model relied on a distant market with a rapidly growing consumer sector and a government with the ability to alter course on a dime. The ones who were aware seem to have been satisfied to ride the wave until it crashed.

And crash it did. The closure of the Chinese market caused a virtual evaporation of system capacity. Post-consumer material had nowhere to go. The end markets (purchasers of separated recyclables) who would take the material demanded very low contamination rates (Between 1 and 5%, and lower). China had set their acceptable rate at 1.5% and then lowered it to 0.5%. As far as North American MRFs (Material Recovery Facilities or MRFs, pronounced “murfs”) were concerned this rate was impossible to achieve. Without a huge low-cost destination for post-consumer materials, the focus began to shift from quantity to quality.  Many MRFs were running their material through their processing line a second time to reduce contamination. This effectively halves their capacity and doubles their labor and energy costs per ton. The result is spiking costs.

As 2019 progresses, the old contracts fade away, and the shock over post-Sword economics sinks in. Processing a ton of recycling might cost as much as disposing of a ton of trash (or more), a previously unthinkable scenario. Where there were once $20/ton rebates, the cost to deliver recyclables to a MRF (called a tip-fee) was suddenly $25-$75/ton. States, municipalities, corporations, MRFs and brokers are all wondering who will pay for these new costs. In cases where long-term contracts with rebate pricing were in force, they were either torn up or the contractee was hit with higher “claw-back” costs in their next contract (making up for losses under the old rebate contract. Some scenarios involved both tearing up a contract as well as claw-back pricing. Could it be that the closure of the Chinese “Magic Market” exposed North American markets to the actual costs of their waste management policies? Can I make that any more of a leading question?

To turn specifically to the United States, our current solid waste management practices matured under those pre-Sword conditions. The expectations of cheap markets for poorly-sorted recyclables have been baked in to our system over the course of decades. That system relies heavily on export markets. It has failed to develop domestic processing and remanufacturing capacity in the shadow of those export markets. It also relies heavily on long-haul transportation instead of local and integrated, collection, processing and remanufacture. The challenge we now face is one of self-examination, education, commitment, and investment. Can we face up to the facts regarding our laissez-faire approach to waste? The idea that we can mass-produce products and packaging, with no regard to the implications, continues to be discredited every day. Whether it is a global adjustment like China Sword, or a local town-hall budget meeting erupting into a shouting match because the money is simply not there, the current system benefits very few and places a massive economic and environmental burden on the public at large.

To return to the opening question, why would we blame China for this scenario? Do they have some kind of mandate to take poor-quality material from halfway around the world, only to spend money to separate it into useful parts, dispose of the contaminants, and hope to end up in the black? None that I know of. More to the point, considering the importance of the Chinese market to the North American waste management industry, why was there no trade agreement in force regarding recycled materials. It was basically one giant handshake deal. This is the quicksand upon which was built the economic basis of the materials management economy for over 20 years.

There is a feeling that the market will settle, costs will relax, and a “new normal” will take shape. For most people in the waste management industry from the consumer/generator to the recycled content manufacturer it can’t happen soon enough.

I intend to come back and dig deeper into these issue in future posts, but I would like to close with a few observations about where the opportunities and solutions might lie:

Strong National and State Policies: To date the waste management industry has largely been left to run itself. It is important to give credit where credit is due. The industry has developed the technology and the economic strength to process much of our nation’s waste material. However, in the end it still operates on a volume basis. The incentive to reduce waste is simply anathema to the waste management industry. This is similar to the relationship between the electric generation industry and energy efficiency. EE measures take dollars out of the system. In the waste management industry, waste reduction plays the role of energy efficiency. The industry has been able to manage waste materials through a network of landfills, waste-to-energy facilities, and recycling facilities. No industry would voluntarily takes profits off the table, and as a bloc the waste management industry lacks the scope to put a value on efficiency and develop the policies and partners to make it work. What is needed now is a strong framework to guide the conversion of that industry to one that works for the next 100 years. It simply must evolve to yoke a reduction in waste generation to improvements in separation, processing and disposal.

The Supply/Demand Void: With the market value of post-consumer recyclables at a deep low there should be a buyer to embrace this buyer’s market. Right now that seems to be limited by processing capacity and the ability to reduce contamination to the new, lower, standards. As well, separated, high quality, low contamination materials are still holding their value in the marketplace. The real boat anchor is mixed recyclables (many of us know this as Single Stream, or Blue Bin). As I was once taught, the technology required to fix a problem is exponentially greater than the technology required to create it. Creating mixed recyclables is easy. Separating them into the component parts and maintaining the integrity of those parts is exponentially more difficult and more costly. The mixed recycling days should by all rights be coming to an end. Hence…

Source-Separation. This term can be used to describe separating recyclable materials from trash, but it also means separating recyclable materials by type before they are commingled. Separating materials such a cardboard, certain plastics, textiles, food waste, electronics, metal, and packaging at the source (the consumer in most cases) yields cleaner and more valuable material without the need for expensive post-processing. This approach also reduces the total quantity of mixed recyclables, lessening the strain on MRFs trying to meet the low contamination rates the market demands.

Cooperative and Expanded MRF Infrastructure: A MRF is a fairly innocuous industrial process. Most of these facilities can be sited in a light industrial zone with access to highway and rail/ship/manufacturing infrastructure. Cities, regions, or states might find the best solution to cost is to contract with a facility to process their recyclables. By keeping the size of each facility down the transportation costs are kept down, and the amount of post-process materials (baled separated recyclables) is likewise kept to an acceptable level as considered by the host community. It is important to note that even clean separated materials sill require baling, storage and marketing. A move away from mixed recycling is not a threat to the MRF industry, but a lifeline.

Integrated Processing and Manufacturing: The conversion of post-consumer recyclables into consumer products the final link in the chain. The transportation costs involved in this process can be mitigated by locating manufacturing facilities within a short-haul of one or more MRFs. Similarly the opportunity for long-term supply contracts sets the stage for enhanced source-separation, decreased contamination, and decreased processing costs. Any MBA will tell you that this is a recipe for long-term control of both costs and materials supplies.

These approaches can all be part of the answer to “what’s next” in the aftermath of China Sword. This crisis presents and opportunity to build the next house on firmer ground, with known costs, and reliable cash flows. This is what drives investment, and ultimately creates a sustainable model with room to grow and change as future opportunities present themselves.




The Disclaimer

I’m not a music journalist. Thank me later. I detest the trend of comparing every band to some other band. It’s lazy. It is shorthand. It lets the writer off the hook, bypassing the need for deep thought ot deep listening.

What I write is largely reviews of music I have purchased directly from the artist. I know some of these folks personally, but I pay for the music whether it is downloads, CDs, concert tickets, whatever. If I think a recording is off, I’ll say so, but if I don’t like it I probably won’t waste my time writing about it.

Same for photography, food, travel, and anything else. Life is too short.

Let the Music Play

This blog has been dormant for quite a while, but my plan is to start putting up music reviews, and some longer-form pieces on learning, performing, and experiencing music.

Coming up very soon: A Tale of Two Mothers

The Real Work Begins

Today’s news includes the introduction of a bill to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency. To some it sounds like a great idea, to many more it sounds insane. We know, without doubt, what happens in the absence of a regulatory structure. When environmental protections are removed the profits are taken by corporations and the costs payed by the public in the form of adverse health effects and lowered standards of living. There is absolutely zero evidence that corporations will invest in pollution controls in the absence of regulations and an enforcement mechanism. Sure, the outright elimination of the EPA is overly simplistic and considered a longshot, but the Trump administration and the 115th Congress have shown that they will enact rule changes and sidestep protocols to get their way. So who knows.

It is right in line with today’s statement from Steve Bannon where he touted the importance of Trump’s moves to begin a “deconstruction of the administrative state”, which he pointed out was being achieved through the appointment of individuals from the private sector to key Cabinet positions where they can move to eliminate federal regulations.

I want to rant about how I have been in the environmental protection game for 30 years, and how we have made so much progress toward supporting businesses and away from the old cops v. robbers mentality. We as a nation have spent the past 60 years recovering from unchecked polluters. To unlearn that lesson and take the progress in our public health conditions for granted is a grave mistake.

But I have to point out something more fundamental: This is the same old GOP game where the banks, billionaires, corporations, and political insiders get paid in full and up front. The public is, as always, waiting for something to trickle down. And we know that they used the word “trickle” for a reason. It is important to set expectations as low as possible.

The hypocrisy of the Trump cabal is hidden behind their outrageous acts, their racism and thinly veiled white supremacy, their careless approach to international affairs, and dot dot dot. What I opined about in the days immediately after the election has been exactly the case: generals in all intel, security and civilian military posts; Goldman-Sachs running the financials; Billionaire donors, corporate raiders, and incompetents running the agencies.

Meanwhile the Trumps and their friends will never live in proximity to a water supply polluted by coal waste, or live downwind of a coal plant, or miss a National park turned into a stripmine, or get sick from pipeline spill fumes, or be the victim of a cancer-cluster. Their retirement savings won’t vanish like a fart in the wind when an unregulated bank fails and there is no federal insurance backing it. Their health care is a fraction of a percent of their income, not 35% or more. Their homes are not in danger of repossession when the next mortgage crisis inevitably happens. And the list goes on.

Deeper, the hypocrisy and cynicism is even worse. The talk about the fallacy of global warming is chapter and verse to them. Meanwhile their massive real-estate investments are secured by even more massive reinsurance companies that backstop insurance on expensive waterfront properties like Trump’s beloved Mar Y Lago. Reinsurance companies pioneered climate modeling because it helps them assess risk and more accurately value the assets they were insuring. That applies to coastal properties as well as less obvious locations like Manhattan and San Francisco. They will make sure that the private sector continues to make good use of climate models for covering their asses while the public policy the other 99.9% depends on is prevented from using it on an “idealogical basis”.

Inside every one of Trump’s military, security, and agency picks there is a common thread of private investors getting paid up front. Private prisons working with ICE/CBP, Private education companies under DeVos in the Department of Education, Trump’s own corporation (a massive customer of public housing grants) under Carson at HUD, Law firms lining up to support Pruitt’s dismantling of the EPA, and the list goes on.

As a citizen we are under a type of assault that we have not seen, ever, in world history. Our government is using information bombardment to make sure that nobody can focus adequately on one issue while in a whirlwind. The confusion is being compounded by the Trump administration’s constant attacks on the press, the public’s eyes and ears. This info carpet-bombing is having it’s share of success. Everything from the elimination of PBS to the rising spectre of a nuclear first strike, when a rudderless commander in chief needs an easy solution to a complex problem, are real concerns and all equally possible. Meanwhile we watch as a time-share hustling mobster disassembles the greatest democracy on earth.

The list will continue to go on. It is up to the citizenry of this country to call a spade a spade and demand accountability from our representatives, focus on the issues we know best, and do what we can to make a real difference.


A Pause, of Sorts

Put in some time over the past day or so listening to an interview of Ta-Nehisi Coates by Ezra Klein of VOX and it was too much to absorb in one go. But before I go back for a second run-through I encourage anyone stumbling over this post to give it a listen. To me it is a frank and honest exchange about how even supporters and admirers of Barack Obama can have serious reservations about him. And that is OK. There are many deeper elements to the discussion. Very essential if you have been looking for something other than name-calling and fear baiting. I also found some of the best ideas “in the spaces” around the discussion. The connections I was making outside of their dialogue were very deep and very personal. Who can ask for more than that.

This blog is very much a stream of consciousness outlet for me. I am often doing more opinioneering than real research, and rarely does it approach any kind of long-form result. I found myself reflecting on that during the piece, and maybe the second listen will cement some of those reflections, or maybe obliterate them.


Get Smart (FAST, please)

This week brought us something superficially hilarious, but also very instructive and somewhat terrifying.

Trump Adviser Questions Climate Change, Cites ‘5,500 Year History’ of Earth

While it is easy to do a spit-take when you have a presidential advisor and senior transition team member who gauges the age of our planet at 5,500 years, don’t laugh.

CNN’s Chris Cuomo has this exchange:

SCARAMUCCI: Chris, there was an overwhelming science that the Earth was flat. And there was an overwhelming science that —

CUOMO: It’s called ignorance. You learn over time.

SCARAMUCCI:  We were the center of the world. A hundred percent, you know, we get a lot of things wrong in the scientific community. You and I both know that. I’m not suggesting that we’re not affecting the change. I honestly don’t know, I’m not a scientist. If you’re asking me for my opinion, it’s probably a blend of people

NO. The neither the concept of a flat earth or geocentrism was scientific consensus in this context. It was the view of the Church, and via the church, the State. As a religious devotee (5,500 years is like Alpha-science-denial territory) of his degree he knows this. Cuomo can’t seem to summon up a middle-school history lesson to refute him. This isn’t a small detail. This is brutal, and Cuomo should be held accountable. The climate deniers are the flat-earthers. They are the ones looking to squelch scientific consensus in an effort to preserve their ancient world view. The petrostate olicarchy will take whatever allies they can find, and they have found them in religious zealots who seek a parasitic relationship with the State.

Scientists who espoused heliocentrism were silenced because their data showed a reality that presented a challenge to the moneyed elites. If the Church and the King were wrong about geocentricism it was a large crack in the Church’s facade, and power. Copernicus and Galileo are the best known examples, but we know implicitly that many many more were bullied into not following their research, or beginning it, out of fear of reprisals from the State and the Church. If we can’t hold up to a mirror to anti-factual propaganda at the most elementary level, we are well and truly deserving of the fucking we are about to get.

This same test was failed earlier in the week, when Chief Presidential Apologist and Obfuscator Kellyanne Conway threw out, casually, regarding the CIA/DNI “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.” Again, NO. She must have it confused with THE WHITE HOUSE, FFS. The WMD question was used as a pretext for the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq.  The propaganda regarding WMD in Iraq was primarily a partisan agenda driven by George W. Bush, Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, and Chevron Oil darling Condoleezza Rice who decided that the intel community would be ignored. It was widely known that no evidence of WMD was found, and the US famously recalled the weapons inspectors before they could finish their inspections and verify the lack of WMD. As an aside, the 9/11 attacks also resulted in the Patriot Act and the largest expansion of government since the depression, The Department of Homeland Security. [p.s. Dick Cheney is out of his undisclosed location and now being touted as a close advisor to Trump. #jussayin]

It feels like this current round of gaslighting is worse because the Trump team is riding on the Obama administration’s coattails. We have not been aggressively challenging Obama’s statements because they have either been highly factual, or backed by respected scientists and experts. We have to snap out of it because we are being lied to with easily debunked bunk. The more accustomed we get to this level of gaslighting, the harder it will be once the Trump team is installed and exerting more direct control over the propaganda process.

We are seeing the same approach taken to Trump’s refusal to avail himself of the President’s Daily Brief, which he characterizes as needlessly repetitive. It isn’t. He’s just lazy and looking to ensure plausible deniability. No president-elect blows off a key component of the job. GWB didn’t grasp its nature and he slept through clear warnings before 9/11. He also may have had oil-brat sympathies for the Bin Laden clan and taken a pass on the warnings out of hand. Trump is setting himself for something much worse because he is sleeping on nuclear arsenals and nations with intentions and capabilities far beyond those of ISIS.



No, I have not been captured by pirates…

It came to my attention that not only have  not posted for a while, but I left off with a series of rum-related posts. It would not be a stretch to imagine me adrift on a raft with a case of Pyrat and some scavenged limes. But no, I have been busy with a host of issues artistic, familial, and careerist. Generally, just busy!

Artistic: Fuchsprellen is on a bit of a hiatus from live performance, but I am still working on a piece for the upcoming Cordelia Records comp. That work is taking place under the Fuchsprellen banner, so there is some life in the organization. The live performance front will come around sooner or later. As it stands I don’t know that I have the time or the focus for it, but we do always find the resolve. Want some noise at your place? Drop me a line. We can oblige.

Family: The usual commitments of house, home, spouse, and dog. Mr Wylee is hanging in there at 13 years old. For a sheepdog that is the far right end of the curve, but his “mind over matter” style means that he is still rallying day to day. The holiday season was a grind, but mainly due to the late and mild winter, and then the crazy and unpredictable spring.

Bidnezz: Approaching one year of working in he realm of waste management and solid waste policy. It has been an eye-opener of a year. The specifics are new, but the underlying concepts and themes that I have been leaning on for 30 years still serve well. Occasionally I get brain-lock as the challenge of the new material can make me forget things I actually know. As in art, so in life.

As always, I’ll have more photos to share on Flickr, more music to share on Bandcamp (or maybe Soundcloud, but that is looking less likely), and more rambling here on the mothership. Ciao.