Last August, the Chinese government announced new restrictions on importing recyclables.
Starting in 2018, it will no longer accept imports of two dozen different materials. These include several types of post-consumer plastic recycling, several types of used textiles, and one grade of unsorted paper. It also announced that it was reducing allowable contamination from 1.5% to 0.3%.
The announcement continues a policy that has been in effect for at least four years. China has had to put too much of what it imports into its own landfills.
The Chinese government no longer wants the country to be a dumping ground for low-quality materials. It isn’t shutting the door to imported recyclables. It just demands much higher quality than it did at first.
The new policy causes some trouble for Chinese recycling companies. They will have less material than they need coming into the country for the foreseeable future. The government intends to increase the recovery and reuse of recyclables from domestic solid waste. It won’t happen overnight.
Foreign countries who export to China, of which the US exports the most, will have to find something else to do with all that material.
The 18th annual Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference (Chicago, October 11-13, 2017) devoted a session to the Chinese crackdown on recycling. Another session at the same conference, however, dealt with how the infrastructure for exporting recycling is growing. One speaker contended that companies not already exporting recyclables need not fear to start. Options and opportunities still exist.
China’s complaints about imports
When China buys scrap paper from the US, its companies use it to make cardboard, which comes back to the US as packaging for what we import.
That is, if the scrap we send them is usable.
American consumers put too much trash, including food waste, in their recycling containers. Too many companies that process recycling fail to sort carefully enough to keep trash and garbage out of the bales they sell.
Long ago, satirist Tom Lehrer wrote, “The breakfast garbage that you dump into the Bay, they drink at lunch in San Jose.”
That would be impossible, but the garbage people dump into their recycling bins does get exported. It really stinks later when containers of contaminated scrap are opened in Chinese ports. Contaminants, including food waste, have comprised up to 5% of the bales that come from some sorting facilities.
Recycling industry response to the Chinese crackdown
The recycling industry expressed concern that the 0.3% limit would be impossible to attain. It urged China to stay with customary practices.
In recent years, the Chinese government, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, and Chinese buyers have all had somewhat different standards.
Shipments have usually adhered to the buyers’ guidelines. They are more lenient than the government’s standards. In other words, the government does not strictly enforce the existing standards. It remains to be seen how strictly it will enforce its new ones.
On November 7, China unofficially announced modification of the new threshold for contaminants. Instead of a limit of 0.3% contamination, the modified standards allow up to 1.0% for imported paper and metal, and up to 0.5% for imported plastic.
The new year could actually bring more imports into China compared to this year. The Chinese government has not issued new import permits since May. Companies that reached the limit of their quotas have not been able to obtain new materials. They are waiting for the government to issue 2018 permits.
On the other hand, there will probably be fewer import licenses in 2018 than before, and they will probably grant lower quotas. Only companies that actually process scrap will qualify for permits. The new regulations effectively shut brokers out of the market.
Some Chinese recycling processors want to get around the new government policies. They are moving to or opening new facilities in other countries in Southeast Asia. India, Turkey, Mexico, and Canada, already large markets for recyclables, might expand. The recycling industry knows it erred in making China a dumping ground. It pledges not to repeat the mistake with India.
Companies that export recyclables will have to produce a better product than has recently been the case.
Local government response to the Chinese crackdown
Local governments have worked hard to expand what they accept for recycling and educate their residents on what and how to recycle. They don’t want to undo all that work.
To be sure, some have had to stop collecting recycling for one reason or another. Others have stopped collecting certain items. China’s new scrap policies may force some governments to make changes. But that doesn’t have to mean abandoning or curtailing their recycling programs.
For one thing, not all municipalities export any of what they collect at all. And the kinds of plastics that China has banned represent less than 2% by weight of curbside recycling. They do account for much more by volume.
West Coast states have very high rates of collecting recyclables. Being closer to China than the rest of the country, they have exported more of their recyclables there.
Seattle, for example, recovers about 60% of its municipal waste for recycling. It charges residents for trash pickup, but not for recycling. Selling it has earned a modest profit, but the sudden loss of the Chinese market threatens to eliminate it.
Washington’s ports shipped close to 800 thousand metric tons of recyclables to China last year. That amounts to 238 pounds for everyone who lives in the state. Companies that sort recycling will have to find somewhere else to send what China will no longer accept, such as the clamshell plastic containers baked goods come in.
The need to adjust to the Chinese crackdown on recycling is not limited to the West Coast, or even the US. Recent articles have appeared about responses in New Jersey, Massachusetts [link no longer works], New Zealand, and various other places.
Cleaning up processed recyclables
Recycling companies also have to improve the quality of materials they can still export.
Many West Coast material recovery facilities (MRFs) have decided to slow their production lines. That way, less contamination will get past the people who sort the materials. They also spend more effort inspecting the tipping floor to reduce the amount of materials that should never go through the sorting process in the first place.
Both measures make the process more expensive, as the MRF produces less material in the same time as before.
In the short term, anyway, many MRF operators, especially smaller ones, will have to send more of their output to landfills. In Oregon, however, state law forbids landfills to accept material that can be recycled profitably. And the law defines profitable differently from MRF operators.
Consumers can help by not taking home so much packaging in the first place. Buying whole fruit in bulk and cutting it at home instead of buying cut fruit in a plastic clamshell, for example. We can also help by making sure containers are reasonably clean and dry before putting them in recycling bins.
Diversifying the market for recyclables
Brokers that handle sales of recyclable scrap have exported it largely because it’s easier than looking for American buyers. The US and other exporting countries will now have to become less dependent on the Chinese market. Some brokers have begun to look at other markets, especially in Southeast Asia.
Better, however, some companies have started to investigate expanding their own production facilities. So while exporters suffer from the new Chinese restrictions, American companies stand to benefit from receiving those materials.
Amazon and other retail companies have a tremendous appetite for cardboard for packaging, for example. Many paper mills have closed in the US. They could be repurposed to use post-consumer and post-industrial waste as raw material in place of virgin timber.
MRFs or landfills could also partner with pyrolysis companies to destroy plastic that’s unprofitable or not recyclable. Pyrolysis returns waste plastic back into crude oil and natural gas.
Just as it will take China a few years to develop its own recycling program, it will take up to five years for the US to build up its infrastructure for processing recyclables and manufacturing new products from them. Doing so, however, will create good blue-collar jobs. That could be particularly important to non-coastal regions of the country that haven’t benefitted from the economic recovery of the past nine years.
Do-it-yourself plastic recycling
It might not be necessary to wait for a factory to open to process recyclables. A company called Precious Plastic has designed small, modular, open-source machines for making new products from scrap plastic. Anyone, anywhere in the world, can download instructions, free of charge, for how to build and operate them. They require only basic tools and materials that can be found even in undeveloped countries.
People are using these machines, first introduced in 2016, in about 200 different countries. Their feedstock is often plastic the owners pick up off the streets. They would be an excellent addition to American makerspaces.
China dials back contamination restrictions / Colin Staub, Resource Recycling. November 14, 2017
China’s scrap ban roils U.S. recycling markets, and that could be a good thing / Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy DC Bureau, November 13, 2017
Chinese crackdown may send more recycling to Northwest landfills / Hal Bernton, Seattle Times. October 30, 2017
Lack of import permits still sinking exports / Colin Staub, Resource Recycling. October 31, 2017
Municipalities hesitate to retreat from recycling progress / Colin Staub, Resource Recycling. October 31, 2017
Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference 2017: Export always is an option / Megan Workman, Recycling Today. October 27, 2017
Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference 2017: Quality pays / Megan Workman, Recycling Today. October 30, 2017
These DIY machines let anyone recycle plastic into new products / Adele Peters, Fast Company. October 30, 2017
Tipping floor. Source unknown
Food waste. Some rights reserved by Nick Saltmarsh.
Wastepaper bales. Source unknown
Trash and recycling truck. Some rights reserved by fairfaxcounty
Plastic bales. Some rights reserved by Nick Saltmarsh.
Plastic recycling process. Some rights reserved by Argonne National Laboratory
Precious Plastic DIY recycling machines. Some rights reserved by Precious Plastic