By L. Sweha
China’s crackdown on contamination in waste imports has forced many jurisdictions to landfill materials they would have otherwise exported to the country.
So, does that mean that the plastic, aluminum, glass and paper that Recology Davis collects from our recycling bins is going straight to landfills?
No, says Craig Johnson, Recycling Manager at Recology Davis. Why? Because of Davis’ ‘old-fashioned’ material separation process.
Earlier this year, China implemented its ‘National Sword’ policy to limit the import of contaminated recyclables, which has meant increased inspections and limitations on import licenses.
China’s strict policy is having adverse impacts on California’s economy and environment. It’s exacerbating a bad market for recyclables that, over the past couple of years, had already caused many in-state recycling facilities to close.
According to CalRecycle, California’s recyclable materials exports had a total vessel value of $4.6 billion in 2016. These recyclables were shipped in relatively empty vessels on their way back across the Pacific Ocean. But export numbers have taken a dive over the last year because of China’s new regulations.
Johnson explained, “Fortunately, Davis is in a better position to comply with China’s regulations than most jurisdictions. First, we use divided containers in which residents separate fiber from plastic and glass. Then, we use manual sorting at the 2nd Street material recovery facility.”
“Most other cities use single stream recyclables collection. Separation is done by machine, which is not as accurate as hand-sorting. The result often is contaminated loads , like paper and cardboard laden with broken glass, that China can reject.”
Davis was a pioneer in recycling, initiating curbside pick-up and source-separation by hand over forty years ago.
“Davis was in the forefront of recycling, but over time, our methods seemed outdated. But now, we are actually ahead of the game again,” Johnson said. “Other cities and the waste management and recycling industry have had to hire more material recovery facility workers and slow down sorting lines to ensure cleaner loads. “
Recology sells most recyclables to multiple brokers, who in turn sell into the global recyclables market, much of it for export to Asia, including China. Brokers are used because the city does not generate enough volume to sell directly to recyclers.
Plastics (#1-7) and aluminum are sold to these brokers. Aluminum, which has a pretty stable market, generally ends up at US plants, like Alcoa. Clear water container #1 PET and #2 HDPE plastics are usually profitable.
Other recycling commodity prices swing wildly. For example, Johnson said that no one wants to buy mixed rigid plastic right now, and much of it when sold at all, is sold at a loss. But, Recology will sell plastic at a loss because it needs the diversion credits to comply with state recycling laws.
Recology sells paper and cardboard fiber directly to recyclers. Up until recently, China was buying US paper to make boxes for their exported products. But now much of it goes to Jakarta, India and Malaysia.
Glass is sold to Strategic Materials in Sacramento.
Davis may be in better shape than many other cities, but the problems with the recyclables market is here to stay. CalRecycle’s solution is continued waste reduction and increased investment in domestic infrastructure to manufacture products from California’s recycled feedstock.
Whether the market for recyclables will stabilize, and who should invest the money to build the market infrastructure are two huge lingering questions we will be dealing with for years.