Many U.S. households continue to recycle cardboard, paper, and plastic, but a change in China’s import rules is sending more of this material to landfills and incinerators as recycling programs in many communities falter.
Once a major importer of U.S. recycled plastics and paper, China imposed strict new rules on what could be imported in early 2018. The decision effectively barred materials that were even slightly contaminated, upending recycling programs in many parts of the U.S.
China’s rules continue to tighten. The initial ban on two dozen varieties of waste was broadened at the end of last year to include scrap ships and auto parts, Reuters reports. Additional types of steel, copper, and aluminum will be banned this year.
The impact on many municipal recycling programs has been severe, The New York Times said. In Memphis, recycling bins can still be found at the airport, but everything that travelers put there goes to a landfill. In Deltona, Florida, The Times said, a curbside recycling program has suspended. The same story is being played out in hundreds of communities around the country.
Some private companies that collect recycled materials are upping rates because they no longer have ready markets. That has put municipal officials in the uncomfortable position of raising taxes to pay for the programs, or dropping recycling altogether.
For China, the new rules are intended to keep “foreign garbage” out of the country as it looks for ways to deal with its own huge stockpiles of recyclables. But choking off what had been a convenient outlet for paper and plastic waste in the West is causing increasing pain here. Fiona Ma, California’s state treasurer, described the situation as a “crisis moment in the recycling movement right now.”
Waste-to-energy plants take some of the excess
Burning waste at least generates some electricity, but waste-to-energy plants also raise concerns about increased levels of air pollution. For example, The Guardian reported that some 200 tons of recyclables from Philadelphia are now shuttled daily to an incinerator in neighboring Chester City, Pennsylvania.
There, a group called Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living opposed to the incinerator worries that it will only make health problems in the city worse. Rates of ovarian and lung cancer are higher there than in the rest of the state, and nearly 40% of children in Chester City have asthma, The Guardian said.
In all, the enormous Covanta incinerator there burns about 3,510 tons of trash per day. The problem, says Claire Arkin of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, is that many of the country’s incinerators are “on their last legs” and don’t have the latest pollution controls. “You may think burning plastic means ‘poof, it’s gone,’ ” she said, “but it puts some very nasty pollution into the air for communities that are already dealing with high rates of asthma and cancer.”
Some Chester residents won’t allow their children to play outside because of how bad the air smells and because of heavy truck traffic headed to the plant.
Covanta says that pollution controls keep airborne toxins below the limits set by state and federal law. The company’s chief sustainability officer, Paul Gilman, said that burning recyclables is better environmentally than sending them to a landfill because of the methane that landfills give off. But even Covanta is hoping that Philadelphia’s recycling program gets back on track because the incinerator wasn’t designed to burn recyclables.
Waste industry seeks changes in China policy
The National Waste and Recycling Association, a trade group representing recyclers and waste handlers, said it has sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to make China’s policy on recycled material part of ongoing trade talks.
China consumed more than 50% of the world’s recycled paper and plastic in 2016, the association said in fact sheet posted at its website. Since China’s new policies have taken effect, the prices paid for some recyclables have fallen sharply. Corrugated cardboard, for example, was worth $105 a ton in December 2017 but only $70 a ton a year later. Prices for mixed paper fell from $32 a ton to $4.69 a ton over the same period.
Chinese restrictions could eventually lead to the loss of tens of thousands of U.S. jobs and the closure of many recycling businesses, association President and CEO Darrell Smith said in a written statement.
The group has requested that China phase in its new requirements over a five-year period to give recyclers globally more time to adapt. At it is, the change in Chinese policy could have a “devastating effect on recycling that may set the industry back decades,” Smith.
“NWRA supports the efforts of the Chinese government to improve environmental protection and standards within its recycling infrastructure,” Smith’s letter said. “However, its decision to ban the importation of recyclable materials that do not meet its impractical standard will have a significant impact on the waste and recycling industry.”
The association has recommended a number of measures to its members: make sure recyclables are of high quality; focus on “core recyclables” to reduce contamination; and collaborate with state and city officials to solve what’s become a global problem.
If you’re interested in learning more about what not to toss in the recycling bin, this explainer from The Times might help.
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