New Policies in China May Affect Single Stream Recycling Here

Jun 13, 2018

Recycling waiting to be processed at E.L. Harvey & Sons, a recycling processing facility in Westborough, Mass. Many Cape towns send their recycling here.
Credit Kathryn Eident / WCAI-FM

Earlier this year, China revamped its policies on how much contamination it would accept from recycling imports, and the changes are already starting to affect the recycling chain here in the U.S.

Some Cape officials are reconsidering their towns' recycling practices as higher costs for recycling seem imminent.  WCAI's Kathryn Eident spoke with Kari Parcell, the municipal assistance coordinator for Barnstable County, to learn more.

Eident: Can you talk a little bit about what those policy changes are?

Parcell: The policy changes are called the National Sword and it came out last year. It pertains to about 25 different materials, and some of the most significant changes that we've seen is for materials such as cardboard, mixed paper, recycled plastics, and low-grade scrap metal. And, because China is the largest importer of recyclables throughout the world, it created a significant impact on the material flow.

Eident: China is saying to processors who pick through that stuff that things that we hope are recyclable but really aren't--if they end up in those bales are not taking them.

Parcell: Correct that is exactly what's happening and there's a lot of confusion. So, if you're looking at something locally, you have some towns that are true single stream and then you have a dual stream system where you have mixed paper and cardboard together, and then you have your comingled glass, tin, and plastics in the other container. And so, those are the types of materials, as well as plastic bags and food waste, which we call yuck in the industry, and tanglers, which are things like textiles, are also being mixed in there along with other daily municipal with solid waste. And so, it creates this contamination that the material recovery facilities can not you know pick through at a desired contamination level that China is allowing in our current markets.

Eident: And now that's affecting the way towns and cities can do business in the recycling industry?

Parcell: Yes. So, one of the big pushes I would like to see for the Cape towns is the recycling IQ kit. It's a targeted campaign for contamination. So, the towns can look at the recycling stream, look at what the biggest contaminant is for those towns. So, for example, the town of Yarmouth is looking at their mixed paper and cardboard. The town of Chatham is looking at bags in the plastics. The town of Truro is also looking at contamination in their single stream. And so, if we can get towns to go back to the way that we were doing them with this source separated, where you have your mixed paper in one, your cardboard on the other, your plastic, glass etc., then what that does is it helps clean up those material streams so when they go to the sorting facilities, there already in a cleaner, less contaminated state, and then the sorting facilities can then be more efficient at what they're doing.

Eident: The thought of a town going back to having to separate...I wondered if that would discourage consumers or residents from doing it at all, because that's a lot more work. It sounds like it's almost going backward.

Parcell: Single stream was created because it's a convenience, but really what happened is recycling did go up--but so did these instances "wish cycling" like, "Oh, we'll just put it in the bin and hope somebody somewhere is going to sort it out for us."

Eident: Does that also mean that cost is going to get passed on to the consumer? Will we eventually have to pay for a recycling sticker?

Parcell: Eventually, residents are going to have to start paying for it, and there is a misconception that recycling is free. It hasn't been.

We should kind of look at the way that we generate, and produce, and consume as the utility. That's where pays you throw comes in. So, if I'm a resident who wants to generate as much trash as I want, that's fine, but I pay for it just like if I wanted to use my gas, or my heat, or my hot water.

Eident: Do you think another market would emerge to try to compete and maybe drive costs back down

Parcell: China was definitely the largest importer globally, but we're going to start seeing other countries like Korea, Vietnam, India start to pick up. The problem is the infrastructure. Even though these other countries are starting to say, "OK, well China isn't doing it and we can start doing it" you still have to rebuild or refurbish the infrastructure to be able to do so and that can take years.

Eident: Well Kari, thanks so much for talking with us. Kari Parcell from Barnstable County, we really appreciate it.

Parcell: Absolutely any time. Thanks for having me Kathryn.

*This transcript was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.