‘Old-Fashioned’ Methods Keep Davis’ Recyclables China-Compliant

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“Davis was in the forefront of recycling, but over time, our methods seemed outdated.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.

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    1. Keith O

      Yeah, from my can too.  It’s always the same guy.  One morning he pulled all the aluminum and plastic from my container but left a bunch of glass cups outside and on top of my others containers.  I got in my car and told him to keep out of my containers if he was going to leave a mess.  No problem since.

      1. Jim Hoch

        “It’s always the same guy.” The reason it’s the same person is that there are organized groups that do this that have split up the city into territories.

        1. Howard P

          My casual observation is the “organization” is very loose… kinda’ like panhandlers operate independently, but respect each others’ “corner” or ‘turf’…

          The individual who worked our street, years ago, was an Asian guy, appearing to be in his sixties, on a ‘beater’ bike… he specialized in Al cans and CA redemption bottles…

        2. Jim Hoch

          Where do you suppose they take the stuff?

          Generally there is a person with a truck who keeps them organized and buys the stuff at a discount. In LA they can get quite violent. Not sure about Davis.

        3. Howard P

          In Davis, our neighborhood is so close to the recycling center, they appear to just bag it, and take it to the center later the same day… “our guy” would come by an hour or so before dawn, on the day we had our recycling picked up…

    2. Tia Will

      As long as they are cleaning up after themselves, this seem like a positive to me. They do the scavenging from what you are discarding anyway and get an added value from the transport. It is still recycled and in some cases, may actually have an interim use before finally wending its way to Recology. Unless they leave a mess, or you are in the habit of quantifying your recycling, you would never know the difference.

      1. Jim Hoch

        They take all the revenue from the process which could be spent on more recycling.

        BTW it’s not actually “discarded” it is “transferred” from my property to the recycling vendors.

        From the city:

        Have you seen strangers rummaging through your recycling cart? They are usually looking for valuable California Redemption Value (CRV) materials, like soda cans and water bottles. This is theft and scavenging recyclables is a violation of Davis Municipal Code Section 32.01.060.

        Why is scavenging a problem?
        Scavenging causes a number of problems.

        Your recyclables end up in the trash. As scavengers search through recycling bins to find CRV, they will often move items from the recycling bins to the trash, filling your trash bin up with recyclables.
        Increased litter. As scavengers search for recyclables in trash and recycling bins, they sometimes leave trash on the ground, contributing to litter problems.
        Identity theft. Scavengers can be looking for more than just CRV. Some scavengers in Davis have been found to have identity theft backgrounds. When someone is searching through trash and recycling, they have access to any mail you have discarded.Always be sure to shred any documents with sensitive information before recycling or disposing of them.
        Removing recycling program funding. Scavengers are not only stealing from Recology Davis, they’re stealing from the residents and business owners of Davis, because the revenue generated from the sale of recyclables goes directly back to the rate payers in the form of lower service rates. Recycling service is provided at no extra cost to Davis ratepayers because the revenue from the recyclables subsidizes the cost for the collection. When scavengers steal the recycling, however, they remove that revenue and cut the funding to the recycling program.
        The problem isn’t just here in Davis. It’s an issue throughout California, which is why Assembly Bill (AB) 1778 was passed, requiring scrap yards that buy $100 or more of CRV bottles and cans or $50 or more of newsprint to document transactions and to pay for these materials by check. AB 1778 is designed to reduce organized recycling theft in California.

        Locally, scavenging recyclables is a violation of Davis Municipal Code 32.01.060. Violators may be prosecuted and are subject to a fine.


        “Recyclables placed at the curb shall become the property of the city or the city’s authorized recyclables collector at the time of the placement at the curb.” (Davis Municipal Code 32.01.060(c))

        Recyclables placed inside of commercial containers shall become the property of city-authorized waste collector at the time they are placed in the container.” (Davis Municipal Code 32.01.060(d))

        “Garbage and other containerized solid wastes shall remain the property of the generator until the material is removed from the container by the city or the city’s authorized collector.” (Davis Municipal Code 32.01.060(a))

        What can you do to prevent scavenging?
        You may be setting out $6 or more worth of CRV containers in your recycling cart each week when you roll your cart to the curb for collection. To keep scavengers away from your recycling cart, try these tips:

        Keep CRV out of your recycling cart
        Cash in your CRV. You can recycle those CRV bottles and cans for money at the locations listed below in Davis. You can keep the money or choose to donate it to a local charity.
        Recology Davis Recycling Center, 2727 2nd Street 756-4646 Redemption Center Hours: Mon-Fri 9:30am – 2:00pm, Sat 8:00am – 4:00pm
        Santana Recycling, 400 Mace Blvd. (916) 856-4734
        Donate your CRV. You can also donate your CRV bottles and cans to a local charity that collects CRV as a fundraiser.
        Drop-off your CRV for recycling. You can bring your CRV bottles and cans directly to the Recology Davis Recycling Center at 2727 2nd Street for 24/7 recycling drop-off.
        Set your cart out in the morning. Most scavengers come at night or very early in the morning. Setting your recycling carts out on the curb the morning of your scheduled pick-up instead of the night before makes it harder for them to get to your cart before it’s emptied.Just make sure your cart is at the curb before 7AM so you don’t miss the recycling truck.
        If you see someone removing recyclables from a cart or bin, get the license plate number of the vehicle and a detailed description of the individual. If it is safe to do so, take a picture (send the picture to pwweb@cityofdavis.org), and call the City of Davis non-emergency Police Department number (747-5400) to report the crime. Recycling theft is an infraction with fines up to $500 ($100 for the first offense, $200 for the second offense and $500 for the third and any subsequent offenses).

        Download a No Scavenging Sign.

    1. Howard P

      If you observed the operations there, you probably would not suggest that… unless you’re highly trained in safety practices, and constantly alert to your surroundings, it is a dangerous workplace…

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