The gate China has raised to the export of trash it once avidly sought has thrown American recycling programs into turmoil, as plummeting paper and plastic prices have forced cities to reluctantly steer reusable material into the landfill – or see their surpluses continue piling up.
Meanwhile, Napa’s trash hauling and recycling services have been able, thus far, to continue finding takers for their scrap.
“Look for the closest available wood and knock on it,” quipped Kevin Miller, recycling manager for the city of Napa. “Everything that’s accepted in our current program, we’ve been able to find a home for.”
In the face of sharp restrictions China placed Jan. 1 on its import of waste paper and plastic from the U.S. and Europe, Napa has managed to find alternative buyers from India, Vietnam and other countries to pick up the slack, Miller said last week. Paper, aluminum, glass and plastic products the city already accepts in blue recycling bins continue to be collected and processed as usual, he added.
For now, Napa’s experience stands in contrast to the fallout that Chinese cutoffs have created in other American cities.
Republic Services Inc., one of the nation’s major waste management companies, this year has diverted more than 2,000 tons of paper into landfills after it was unable to find a market for the material “at any price or cost,” a vice president for the firm told The New York Times. In Medford, Oregon, Rogue Disposal and Recycling was forced to use a state waiver to dump 2,700 tons of reusable but unsalable materials between November and February, a spokesman confirmed to the Medford Mail Tribune.
Environmental Protection Agency reports indicate about a third of the 66 million tons of U.S. waste recycled each year is exported. However, scrap shipments to China dropped 35 percent in January and February after the Chinese curbs took effect, the Times reported.
The effects have been telling an ocean away in the North Bay, according to Greg Kelley, general manager of Napa Recycling & Waste Services, which operates the city recycling and composting center.
“Before mid-2017 we sold 80 percent of our recyclable newsprint, cardboard and plastic to Chinese buyers,” he said. “Since then, since China has cut its purchases, today that percentage for us is zero.
“Since China had been such a huge buyer and has stopped buying, there’s been far more supply than demand, so prices have been dropping like a rock. Now we have to pay to get rid of newspaper; we have to pay instead of getting paid” – to the tune of $10 for each ton of newsprint hauled away, versus the $200 the same amount of paper commanded in sales in 2010.
Most troublesome among the new rules for U.S. recyclers are the tighter standards on the purity of recyclables China does admit, local waste management officials said. To improve the marketability of salvaged trash, Napa Recycling is paying more attention to culling throwaways some residents mistakenly believe can be recycled.
“We’re cracking down on garden hoses, extension cords, film plastic from food packaging, plastic bags,” said Kelley, describing some of the materials that either have no resale value or snarl and damage recycling equipment.
While Napa specifies the materials it does want users to place in their blue bins – cardboard, newsprint, metal food and drink cans, glass and plastic beverage containers, rigid plastics – the city had been able to find Chinese buyers even for low-grade materials tossed against city rules, an option Miller said has been closed off in the past year.
“China had low-cost labor sorting through it, recovering 30 to 40 percent of it,” he said. “When they stopped accepting it, the market evaporated.”
On its social media accounts, Miller added, Napa is trying to show well-meaning customers the effects of improper recycling – including a Facebook photo of hoses and bags snarling a sorting machine like a giant hairball. “We have to re-educate the public that we don’t want it,” he said.
In the future, according to Miller, the recyclables that actually do get recycled will likely be whatever materials are the cleanest and best sorted. “It’s the mixed-resin plastics, the dirty and gunky stuff on the margins, where the market is drying up or nonexistent now,” he said.