In the aftermath of China’s “National Sword” policy, the financial case for recycling has declined
NEW YORK, NY — With municipal budgets across the country facing immense pressure due to the economic downturn, a new Manhattan Institute study by senior fellow Howard Husock suggests that ending or adjusting recycling could offer a key source of potential savings. While recycling was once fiscally sound and in some cases profitable, it’s now become costly due mainly to changes in China’s import policy. Husock estimates the savings that five municipalities across the country—New York City, Boston, New York’s Westchester County, San Jose, and Dallas—could realize by ending recycling.
As of 2017, China was importing billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. recyclables to reprocess into manufacturing materials. But with the abrupt end to that practice in 2018, thanks to Beijing’s “Operation National Sword,” the market for recyclables has collapsed, meaning American cities are often paying rather than being paid to recycle. With budgets now under pressure from the Covid-19 downturn—and recycling’s environmental benefits in question—Husock’s calculations suggest cities should reconsider the practice.
Key findings include:
- China imported $5.6 billion worth of American recyclables in 2017, but the market has since collapsed. The price for corrugated cardboard fell 85 percent from 2017 to 2019, according to some estimates, and the price for mixed paper dropped from $160 to $3 per ton in the same period.
- New York City could save approximately $340 million per year by ending recycling.
- Boston could save between $1.7 million and $3.0 million per year by ending recycling.
- With market prices for recyclables plummeting, San Jose, California—once a national leader in recycling—is now relegating many of its recyclables to incinerators or landfills.
- While Dallas’s recycling arrangement is among the most fiscally responsible in the country, it still costs homeowners $14 million a year.