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Opinion: China Disrupts World Recycling Markets

By Tom Valentino, Manager
Lassen Regional Solid Waste Management Authority

Separating and recycling materials from household and commercial trash has been a given in California for over 30 years. Californians have embraced environmental ethic and the mantra of “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.” Virtually all communities in the state have two or more separate containers for recyclable materials such as glass, paper, plastic and cardboard and another for “everything else,” including household garbage.

California politicians and state regulators have congratulated themselves for state recycling mandates that resulted in 50% diversion from landfill disposal of all solid wastes generated in 2014 – touted as one of the highest in the nation. Unfortunately, most of the state’s solid wastes recovered as recycling was shipped overseas to China, rather then being re-manufactured in the U.S. as new products.

In February 2013, the Chinese government started implementing “Operation Green Fence” which established an aggressive inspection program of imported mixed recyclable materials. The goal of the program was to reduce the amount of contaminants (non-recyclables) in the bales shipped to the country. Contaminants include several types of plastics products, food-soiled paper and cardboard, and Styrofoam, along with materials China does not want at all such as clothes, electronics, medical wastes and household batteries.

China began tightening the material restrictions and, consequently, the state diversion rate decreased to 47% in 2015 and 44% in 2016.

In July 2017, China announced at a meeting of the World Trade Organization that they no longer wanted to be the “world’s garbage dump” and would ban from import 24 types of solid wastes, including unsorted paper and most plastic materials. The ban, dubbed “National Sword,” was fully implemented this month despite protests from the United States, Canada and the European Union. National Sword has placed the entire recycling industry in upheaval, including Lassen County. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries estimated that China received one-half of the world’s plastic and paper before the ban. Now, there are few markets for these materials to go.

Because of the substantial trade deficit between the United States and China, shipment of diverted solid wastes overseas was very inexpensive in empty Chinese container vessels returning home. But, with increased economic prosperity, Chinese citizens began demanding improved environmental conditions. Their government responded with Operation Green Fence and now, National Sword. These actions are jeopardizing all recycling programs because there is insufficient infrastructure in the continental United States to handle all the materials placed in recycling carts and bins.
In California, it was far cheaper to export our trash and true recyclables than have a clean material stream and regional re-manufacturing plants. Now, there is a huge glut of recovered materials and nowhere to take them. Not surprisingly, recyclers now have to pay to get rid of their material rather than getting paid for them. Add in processing and shipping costs, it is simply less expensive to landfill materials placed in the recycling carts than to recycle them.

There are no easy answers to address this problem. On the west coast, recycling companies are hoping India, Pakistan and Malaysia start accepting more materials, but shipping costs will be higher and payments (if any) will be less than the China option just several months ago.

The state of California, through CalRecycle, hopes to fund more recovery and re-manufacturing plants, as they recently did to expand the Princess Paper Plant in Los Angeles County with a two-million-dollar loan. However, this is relatively a very small amount of money to solve the problem. More plants could (and should) be built in the state, but building anything in California is expensive and takes, oftentimes, years. Meanwhile, the state is moving forward with a 75% recycling rate goal by 2020. That goal was very aggressive before National Sword. It now seems to be an impossible goal to achieve and should be shelved for the time being.

Other “solutions” include a state-wide ban on so-called single-use plastics, such as the one endorsed by the Los Angeles Times in a February 20, 2018 editorial. That also seems like an unworkable (and unpopular) solution, as thin-film plastics have important functions in society for health and sanitation and cannot be easily (and inexpensively) replaced.

What does this all mean for Susanville and Lassen County recycling programs? In the short-term, residents are urged to be aware of what they can and cannot place in recycling carts. For example, water bottle (plastic #1) and milk and juice containers (plastics #2) are acceptable, whereas plastics #3 through #7 are not. Plastic shopping bags (#4) are a real culprit – as they foul mechanical sorting machines increasing recycler processing times and costs – and should not be disposed of in the recycling cart.

The Chinese recycling ban may also mean possible institution of a small monthly fee for the curbside recycling cart. Many communities in the state have separate fees for recycling. Locally, we have enjoyed no-fee recycling services for many years. However, because of the global recycling crisis, it is no longer economic to offer no-cost recycling services.

The Lassen Regional Solid Waste Management Authority will be discussing recycling and possible institution of a recycling fee for curbside carts and bins at our regular meeting at 3:00 pm on March 27, 2018 at the Lassen County Board of Supervisors chambers. The public is encouraged to attend the meeting to better understand the challenges facing our recycling programs.

Meanwhile, please contact C&S Waste Solutions at 252-1200 if you have any questions about recycling or visit their website at and look for their recycling guide.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by guest authors and those providing opinions on SusanvilleStuff are theirs and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of Couso Technology and Design, SusanvilleStuff or any of our employees.

Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso Publisher/Editor


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