From Seattle to Santa Fe, municipal recyclers are reeling from China’s new ban on low-value recyclable materials such as junk mail and flimsy plastics. They’re still trying to figure out: What will we do with all that waste?
“It’s been a gut punch,” said Steve Burgos, head of Boise’s Public Works Department.
It was a gut punch, too, to Boiseans and other westerners who had had been paying for curbside pickup for years, many with no idea that authorities were sending their dutifully recycled cardboard food boxes and thin-plastic water bottles to China, not recycling them domestically.
But no one in the western U.S. recycles those materials.
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Republic Services, which collects both trash and recycling for most of Ada County, banned plastics numbered 3-7 at the start of the year. Boiseans received an exemption after city leaders said they’d found a business in Salt Lake City that would turn the plastics into diesel fuel, but until that begins this spring, even the Boise plastics are just being landfilled.
And the paper? Boise’s Western Recycling, which sorts and packages the recyclables Republic collects for shipment elsewhere, says it has found customers in India, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries that still accept and recycle it. But the company doesn’t know if that will last.
For Boise and neighboring cities, China’s decision to just say no has forced a reckoning.
Curbside recycling will continue, because there are still domestic customers for our high-quality plastics (most plastics numbered 1 and 2) , metals and certain paper. But it will change. Boiseans will sort recyclables again, though in a different way than they did before 2009, when they began tossing everything into one big plastic bin.
And they might pay more for the privilege.
How did it come to this?
Recyclable materials can be divided into two categories: those that make money and those that don’t.
Prices vary, but profitable materials generally include metals, corrugated cardboard and high-grade plastics such as milk jugs and soda bottles.
Less-valuable items include low-grade plastics and mixed paper, which includes newspaper, magazines, noncorrugated cardboard and junk mail.
In recent years, the U.S. market completely dried up as the Chinese paid more than domestic recyclers could afford. As its economy grew at an astounding rate, China exported goods and imported raw materials as fast as it could so it could build and manufacture more stuff.
Sometimes, Burgos said, the Chinese market for recyclables was weak, but shippers bought the recyclables anyway because they needed weight to make their ships more stable for trips to China, and they weren’t carrying much in the way of U.S. exports.
Recycling cities in eastern states mostly sell these materials to buyers in Montreal. Shipping materials from Boise and other western cities to Montreal would be too expensive, Burgos said.
The hammer drops
China’s economic growth has slowed, reducing its demand for raw materials. The country has become more conscious of environmental degradation and doesn’t want to be the world’s dump anymore for an American recycling stream whose contaminants end up in a landfill or incinerated.
China’s plastics ban took effect Jan. 1. Dave Dean, Western Recycling’s owner, said he knows of no place in the world where low-value plastics are recycled. Across the West, they’re now ending up in landfills.
Municipal officials across the west knew the ban was coming. Three days after the ban began, the city of Boise announced that it had found a solution: It would pay to send the plastics to Salt Lake City where a company, Renewlogy, would convert them to diesel fuel.
The city’s solution has an added benefit: It should increase, not reduce, the amount of plastic to be collected. That’s because Renewlogy will accept a wide range of petroleum-based items that were not accepted before for recycling, such as plastic shopping bags, foam egg cartons, cereal-box liners and candy wrappers.
Participants would separate those from the recycling stream and place them in orange 13-gallon bags to be picked up along with their recyclables.
Garden City will allow its residents to participate in the orange bag program, too, Mayor John Evans said. Other cities, including Eagle and Meridian, are considering taking part.
Boise plans to launch the program with Renewlogy in mid-April. Republic has asked all of the cities here to set their recycling policies by the end of April.
No such solution has been found for paper.
Six weeks after the plastics ban took hold, China said it would no longer accept mixed paper with contamination levels higher than 0.5 percent — a level recycling businesses consider all but impossible to reach. Boise is one of many western cities that haven’t decided what to do.
Not a single plant in the western U.S. processes recyclable paper, said Western Recycling’s general manager, Rick Gillihan. The closest one is in the Midwest.
One possible — and unpopular — option is to raise residents’ rates to pay companies to take mixed paper and recycle it. Public Works officials say they don’t know how much more money that would take.
For now, Republic is still accepting mixed paper in residents’ blue carts across the Treasure Valley, spokeswoman Rachele Klein said. That’s because Western Recycling found those foreign buyers.
Phoenix has found a partial solution. Instead of mixed paper, Phoenix produces what it calls “special news mix” — newsprint and all other paper that’s not cardboard, said Assistant Public Works Director Joe Giudice. The city sells this mix to a private recycler in China.
“Our baled special news mix is very dry thanks to our climate,” Giudice said. “The buyer is happy with us.”
Technology and markets
Another partial solution may come from sorting technology, though it’s costly.
Some recyclables-sorting plants in other cities have optical sorters, sophisticated machines that separate the various unsorted materials in the recycling stream much more effectively than workers next to a conveyor can. Phoenix uses them for plastics and might someday have them for paper, Giudice said.
Boise doesn’t have one.
Dean, the Western Recycling owner, said his company ships all plastics it receives in Boise to other plants that use the sorters to separate low-grade from high-grade ones. Some of the newest models could make mixed-paper virtually contaminant-free, making it valuable to buyers in China and elsewhere.
Boise has talked about helping Western Recycling buy a sorter but, again, there’s no formal proposal, Public Works spokesman Colin Hickman said.
“We’re always willing to make further investments,” Dean said “But it’s a little tough right now to say, ‘Well, I’m going to go spend $500,000 on this optical sorter,’ And then I order it, pay the deposit, and then, a month from now, everybody in the Valley decides they’re going to take the mixed paper out [of the recyling stream]. That doesn’t leave me in a very good position.”
Help could also come if a domestic market for cheap recyclables returns, eliminating the need to ship them overseas. Such an option has not materialized, though officials in Boise and other cities, such as Phoenix, express confidence that it will.
Boise officials say they would consider raising rates to subsidize a local or regional market.
Education aimed at developing new habits will be a big part of cities’ responses to the China bans.
Officials in Boise and other cities say they will try to persuade businesses and consumers to avoid heavily packaged products, reducing the volume of material that needs to be recycled. Residents will have to pay closer attention to what they’re throwing away and where.
Today, sloppy home recyclers make life harder for everybody. About 15 percent of the materials that come into Western Recycling’s Boise plant cannot be recycled and end up in the landfill, said Gillihan, the general manager.
“It’s unbelievable what people put in their containers,” he said. “And it really sacrifices the quality of the materials of the people who are doing it right.”
Now, with the “orange energy bag” program about to start, Boise is planning a new round of education — “kind of a full-court press” — to let people know exactly which items go where:
▪ High-grade plastics, such as milk jugs and detergent containers, in the blue recycling containers.
▪ Low-grade plastics in the orange bags.
▪ Compost and garbage in their respective containers. Boise started its curbside compost pickup program last year.
The city’s glass pickup program will continue unchanged, with drop-off points around the city. Private companies pulverize the glass they collect in Boise for use in industrial abrasives, such as paint removers, said Burgos, the Public Works director.
Boise’s outreach and education will include open houses across the city, mailed literature, inserts with utility bills, local advertising and media events, said Hickman, the Public Works spokesman.
“We acknowledge that these changes are a lot, and it can be confusing to people,” he said.
Businesses and packaging
Having seen Boiseans embrace composting in the past year, Boise leaders hope they’ll embrace a campaign to reduce the purchase of products with hard-to-recycle packaging.
“Do you buy the jug of applesauce?” Burgos said. “Or do you buy the ... eight little cups that have a whole lot more waste?”
Both Boise and Phoenix also say they’ll encourage businesses to curb packaging and use materials that are more easily recyclable.
Phoenix’s Giudice pointed to Coca-Cola’s recent announcement of its goal to collect and recycle all of its bottles by 2030. Last year, PepsiCo said it will try to make 100 percent of its packaging recoverable or recyclable by 2025.
“There’s some small wins there,” he said. “I think we’ve got a long way to go.”
Burgos said China’s ban might lead to more efficient, environmentally responsible waste disposal and recycling.
“This is a good wake-up call,” he said. “I think there is a local solution or a regional solution that we need to start considering. Just like we have with composting. Just like we have with the orange energy bag now. There’s a better way forward. We just have to figure it out.”