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China forces change in PA recycling

Written by Avery Van Etten, Smart Talk intern | Jul 26, 2018 4:50 PM

woman recycling bottle 600 x 340.jpg

Before this year, China was the largest buyer of recycled commodities, which were by volume the largest United States export. However, beginning January 2018, China stopped accepting two dozen foreign recyclables. In addition, it lowered the permitted amount of contamination - non-recyclable items that are put in recycling bins - from five percent to 0.5 percent. Recycling practices in Pennsylvania are changing to compensate for these alterations to Chinese policy. 

Kathryn Sandoe, Chief Communications Officer at Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority, explains that the U.S. used to sell its recycled waste to China, where it was turned into other products. These products were then sold back to U.S. manufacturers. However, as China's population grew, it produced more waste internally. Facing an increasing volume of domestic waste and pressure to clean up environmental problems, China determined that it would decrease the foreign recyclables it would accept. 

Achieving this goal involved two steps. First, China stopped accepting 24 recyclables. Sandoe says that most significant of those 24 banned commodities are mixed paper (for example, junk mail) and mixed plastics (labeled with numbers three through seven). According to the National Waste & Recycling Association, over half of the world's recycled paper and plastic was consumed by China in 2016. Now, the U.S. and other countries must find other outlets for this waste. 

The second change China initiated this year was decreasing the permissible level of contaminants in recycled waste. The 0.5 percent limit is basically impossible to achieve, say Sandoe and others such as Penn Waste. Sandoe notes that the average contamination of recycled materials is 20-40 percent. 

Since the U.S. can no longer sell its recyclables to China, the refuse is piling up at material recovery facilities as they try to find new outlets for the waste. So far, a new buyer to purchase recyclables on the same scale as China has not been found. 

To deal with this change, some counties, such as Lancaster County, are cutting down on items that can be recycled to decrease contamination. Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority is now only accepting the "Big 4:" corrugated cardboard, plastic bottles and jugs with necks, metal food and drink cans, and glass bottles and jars. Penn Waste has also cut down on what can be put in recycling bins, taking a "Back to Basics" approach. 

Another way to compensate for the loss of the foreign outlet is raising fees for recycling services. Material recovery facilities used to gain revenue by selling recyclables to China, explains Sandoe. Now, they have to find new ways of dealing with the waste pile-up, which may involve paying other facilities to take the refuse or paying to dispose of the materials. Sandoe calls the situation a "financial crisis" for material recovery facilities - where they were making money before, now they are losing it. To make up for lost funds, people can be charged more to recycle. 

Bicky Redman, who is the Senior Environmental Planner for Adams County, says that so far haulers in her county have not made any changes to their recycling policies, but she expects that change will come based on the recycling market. Redman explains that recycling companies may have to employ more staff and be more careful in separating materials, which could also cause an uptick in prices for recycling. 

Unfortunately, some of the waste building up at recycling facilities is ending up in landfills. People should not give up on recycling, though. Redman notes that there have been fluctuations in the market before, but this one may be more extreme because "all our eggs were in one basket."   

Kristie Smith, Watershed Specialist at the Perry County Conservation District, says that currently recycling is not sustainable, but she remains optimistic about its future. She says, "Recycling has to be a key component of everyone's daily life if we want to keep our communities beautiful."  

Sandoe explains that to make recycling sustainable in the long term, people need to recycle the right materials. What specific haulers will accept in recycling bins varies, but in general, Sandoe says the waste should be clean and free of items that could tangle such as string lights and plastic bags. 

Sandoe suggests that another way to prevent waste from piling up in landfills is paying attention to the packaging of purchased items. She says that people often consume items that are packaged excessively, and much of that packaging winds up in landfills because it is not recyclable. 

Organizations such as the Perry County Conservation District are working to educate people about recycling properly. Sandoe says that people generally have good intentions regarding recycling. Even when they recycle the wrong items, it is because they want to do the right thing for the environment. 

Waste360 says that despite the challenges it creates for U.S. recyclers, China's policy change also provides opportunities to engage in commerce with new buyers and expand our domestic recycling market.

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