China’s new rules mean we need to get a lot bet­ter at re­cy­cling

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BUSINESS - CHRIS TOM­LIN­SON Com­men­tary

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.

Hous­ton Chron­i­cle file

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.

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