China’s new rules mean we need to get a lot better at recycling
Houston’s City Council has finally signed a long-term contract for modern curbside recycling, just in time for China to say it will not take our stinky garbage anymore.
If we don’t clean up our recyclables, the money Houston spends on recycling might be for naught because of higher standards for recycled materials that took effect Jan. 1. The same is true for every city and company in America.
“We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials,” China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection wrote in a notification to the World Trade Organization last year. “We urgently adjust the imported solid waste list and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted.”
The new restrictions are bad for U.S. recycling companies, which sent 4,000 containers filled with recyclables to China every day last year. The trade is worth $5 billion, and scrap metals and recyclables are the sixth-largest U.S. export to China, according to federal data. Houston-based Waste Management is America’s seventhlargest exporter, sending over 3 million tons overseas each year.
As China moves away from an export-oriented manufacturing economy, the government can afford to be choosy. The government wants a consumer-based economy and for Chinese manufacturers to use local materials, not imported refuse.
In additional to rejecting some products entirely, such as mixed paper, China’s government also restricted the number of import licenses for recycled materials.
“China is really ratcheting down on the material being brought into the country,” said Brent Bell, vice president for recycling at Waste Management, the largest residential recycler in the country. “Prices have obviously declined.”
China’s border inspectors will turn back any shipment that has more than 0.5 percent
contamination, by weight. American recyclers can currently achieve about 1.5 percent contamination levels from municipal recycling programs. The U.S. Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has asked China to reconsider, but without success.
“China’s proposed ‘carried waste’ thresholds, like their earlier proposals, are not in line with standards followed globally by the recycling community and our industrial consumers,” Robin Wiener, the institute’s president, said.
People who recycle are the problem. About 15 percent of what Americans put in their bins is garbage, like food scraps, pizza boxes and dirty diapers, or hazardous materials, like cellphones and propane tanks. Those items contaminate the good stuff.
“We can get to under 1 percent, but it will require a lot higher costs and a lot more policing on the inbound side,” Bell said.
Most municipal recycling contracts provide for profit sharing when commodity prices are good and penalties for high contamination levels. When demand is low because people muck up their recycling, it costs them more in waste removal fees in the long run.
Mayor Sylvester Turner is banking that FCC Environmental, which won a 20-year, $37 million contract with Houston, will build a recycling facility that can successfully sort glass, paper, aluminum and plastic bags into highquality, uncontaminated commodities for export.
“The facility they’re proposing to build here in the city of Houston is over 100,000 square feet, stateof-the-art technology,” he said Wednesday. “That’s critically important because the market has changed, and China has indicated the products they used to take, they’re not going to take them anymore.”
The success of any recycling program, though, ultimately relies on the people who fill up those curbside carts at their homes and offices.
“We started cracking down on our inbound customers about quality concerns to make sure the material that we sell is in the best condition it can be,” Bell said. “We need to educate people and let them know what belongs in those recycling bins.”
Waste Management has a recycling education website at recycleoftenrecycleright.com.
The Bureau of International Recycling, a Brussels-based industry trade group dating to 1948, is also kicking off the first Global Recycling Day on March 18. The goal is to educate the world about how to recycle properly.
Bell said he hopes China’s new policy will also encourage more American companies to enter the recycling business. There is plenty of supply. What’s needed is more demand for recycled materials.
In a world of finite resources, we must reduce, reuse, recycle and repurpose. This is not about politics. It is a question of conservation and efficiency in a world where there is not enough land to bury all of our detritus.
For recycling to work, it must be a profitable business. And that starts with you and me doing our part, which will have the added benefit of saving us money.
Clear glass goes into a container at the recycling center on Washington. The city has a long-term recycling contract with FCC Environmental, which will build an advanced recycling facility.