China’s restrictive policy on recycling puts cities in a bind

Mayors from some 20 Contra Costa County cities got sobering news from a panel of recycling experts at the Mayors Conference last week.

China, long the major global importer of recyclables, has drastically cut the amount of solid waste it will accept from other countries in an effort to clean up its environment. The 2017 initiative, known as the China Sword, reduced acceptable contamination from garbage and dirty wastes to 0.5 percent and banned mixed paper altogether.

“We were shipping 10-15 percent contaminated materials,” said Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste. “Low-grade plastics, glass shards and food were mixed in with the recyclables.”

With the threshold at 0.5 percent, something as little as the baling wire around the bundles could cause contamination. While haulers seek new markets, bales of unacceptable plastics and mixed paper pile up at local recycling centers – putting pressure on the cities and haulers to deal with the problem.

“This is not a blip in the market,” warned Kish Rajan, chief administrative officer for Mt. Diablo Resource Recovery, which serves Concord. “This is the new normal.”

In November 2016, recyclers were getting $77.50 per ton of mixed paper. By March 2018, that dropped to less than $5. “But the cost of collecting is still 70 percent of our operating costs,” Rajan said.

Material recovery centers, where haulers take trash to be sorted, have hired more workers and slowed down the sorting process to deliver clean material to buyers. But what used be a profit center is now running in the red.

Lapis said most consumers “single stream” recycle, meaning everything recyclable goes in the brown cart – leaving recycling center to sort it.

“It’s just too confusing to customers to try to figure out what is ‘good’ plastic, what is ‘bad’ and what may be in the middle,” Lapis said.

And, it’s about to get a whole lot more complicated.

In 2016, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to curb greenhouse gasses by reducing organic waste in landfills 50 percent by 2020 and 75 percent by 2025.

Beginning January 2020, garbage companies must start composting all green waste, including food, yard trimmings, wood, food-soiled napkins, paper towels, egg cartons, etc. None of it can go into landfills.

According to Susan Hurl of Republic Services, businesses that meet a certain threshold are already required to have an organic waste program. In 2019, the requirement expands to multi-family dwellings. Composting at the customer level will be voluntary for the time being.

A long-term fix must happen at the state level, with tighter regulations and a central funding source. Manufacturing and packaging decisions will have to revolve around recyclability. “We need to crack down on manufacturers who have been getting a free ride,” Rajan said.

A state fee on garbage bills could replace lost revenue from the China Sword, Lapis said, noting that services like Comcast and PG&E collect state and federal fees.

Local level changes can also help. Many municipalities, including Concord, ban non-recyclable polystyrene in things like beverage cups and take-out containers.

“Local government is in a pressure cooker,” Lapis said.