China’s cuts to recycling being felt by area counties

Re-usable shopping bags are one way to cut down on waste that otherwise would be landfilled.


Declining worldwide demand for recycling materials has impacted both local garbage haulers and county governments tasked with accepting their loads. 

Blame a policy called “The Chinese National Sword.” It’s a ban that started late in 2017 on imported recyclables that are less than 99.5 percent pure (uncontaminated). But the crux of the matter is that the U.S. does not have a robust infrastructure for giving those recyclables a new life.

More than a year into China’s ban on most imported recyclables, a market that had previously received upwards of 35 percent of U.S. recycling materials for the last 30 years, prices for those same materials have continued to fall dramatically.

Christine McCarthy, environmental services director for Lake County, says Minnesota garbage haulers are required to offer recycling pick up, and they can’t de-incentive customer recycling by charging a fee for that service. So haulers are feeling the crunch.

Falling prices for reclaimed materials has been the biggest challenge faced this year by the new owners of John’s Sanitary Removal. Deven and Derek VanHouse, co-owners of the Silver Bay-based garbage hauling company, bought the company last February.

“Now that we’ve had a couple months to look at the problem, we’ve figured out that we are losing about $40,000 a year just on picking up recycling,” said Devan VanHouse.

After employee wages, equipment use and fuel are factored into transporting recyclables to a recycling broker in Duluth, financial results remain negative.

The Chinese National Sword bans imports of 24 kinds of waste material and institutes a stricter standard for contamination levels from 90-95 percent purity to 99.5 uncontaminated. The move is intended to reduce pollution in China and prevent illegal waste smuggling.

It’s not just the United States reeling from the policy. The whole world was shipping garbage to China, with over 70 million tons of used plastics going there annually. In 2018, China accepted just one percent of its 2016 total of recyclable waste from worldwide imports.

However, domestic recyclers are facing even greater market destabilization with the trade war and tariffs affecting Chinese copper prices during a time when copper demand already is declining. Aluminum recyclers also are seeing price fluctuations.

Pressure is growing on agencies like the MPCA to develop new solutions to recapturing recycled materials, McCarthy said.

“We need more incentives for local markets, whether that means government agencies helping to support programs that process or use recycled materials, or putting pressure on manufacturers to reduce waste or use recycled products,” he added.

VanHouse remains concerned that until systematic change occurs, the consumer will ultimately pay the price of falling demand and prices for recycled materials.

“We didn’t want to raise our hauling rates, but we have to build this into our costs. I feel bad because some people are not happy with that,” he said.

While VanHouse supports the philosophy of recycling to keep waste out of landfills, he also sees a need for a change that will accommodate the economically feasible reuse of recycled materials.

“It’s good to recycle and keep landfills from filling too quickly, but without a market, this is a huge problem in the country and there is a need to invest in fixing this,” said VanHouse.

Some people are calling for more incorporation of recycled materials into consumer products, but until 2017, using China as a dump has been a simpler alternative. Others are calling for changes in consumer consumption habits.

“People need to think about what they are buying, using and throwing away, and ask themselves: Do you use recycled products, like plastic bags and garbage bags?,” said VanHouse.

McCarthy echoed that same sentiment, saying consumers can help drive more sustainable trends by the choices they make in what they buy and by evaluating their post-use habits.

“The bottom line is garbage is going to become more expensive, and what can we do to reduce the amount of garbage? We should all be looking at buying more things that have less waste, buy stuff that can be recycled, composted and reused,” said McCarthy.

One EPA report estimates 35 million tons of plastics were generated in 2017, with 27 million tons of that going into landfills. Only 9 percent of plastics were being recycled in the United States prior to the Chinese ban.

Despite these dire statistics, the fossil fuel industry is already expanding plastic production with a trajectory that would double current production by 2024.

Despite an ever narrowing financial margin, McCarthy says Lake County maintains committed to its recycling program.

“I’m not giving up because I believe the pressure is for the local and regional markets to create uses for these materials. And it is a good thing that we are being forced to rethink our buying habits. That’s what will shift the market,” McCarthy stated.

In Cook County, many of the same problems exist, although a smaller population creates a lower density of recyclable materials.

According to Tim Nelson in Cook County’s Land Services Department, tightening up on recycling contamination has been a priority in the last year.

“Our hauler let us know that we had to really clamp down on any prohibited items that make a dirty load, and asked us to clean up the source by separating materials without any contamination,” Nelson said.

Dirty little secret

Contamination is a massive problem in the recycling world. It got much worse with China’s stricter standard. The majority of recycled goods are brought to a recovery center and sorted. 

Batteries, plastic bags, diapers or food in one bin can contaminate the entire load. Up to 25 percent of materials in a bin can’t be recycled, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association. A higher intensity of sorting increases costs. Contamination can literally gum up the gears, with plastic bags being a common culprit for jamming conveyor belts and machinery.

Even though Cook County pays more to send recycled materials down the road, officials say it’s the right thing to do.

“We do more than what the state mandates in the Arrowhead because people here are very interested in doing the right thing. Despite costs, the county commissioners have never faltered from the recycling program to keep that material out of landfills. We are not going to stop,” Nelson stated.

He added that residents are constantly brainstorming to find new ways to improve recycling issues and find solutions.

“It’s an economy of scale problem with such little feedstock. Even if we collected and gave away recyclables to someone local, it would still be cheaper to buy virgin plastic and ship it,” said Nelson

Legislative funding of $800,000 was approved this year for the MPCA to implement recycling market development projects. The formation of the Recycling Market Development Workgroup –  comprised of haulers, material recovery facilities, cities, counties and the state – has been tasked to define market priorities and recommend how to improve end markets for recycling in Minnesota.

Susan Heffron, MPCA recycling market development, says Minnesota is in a slightly better position than many parts of the country with better end markets already in place.

“In the late 1990s and 2000, both public and private sectors invested a lot of money to get recycling manufacturing plants up and going in the state, so now it’s not as tough to find our own markets regionally,” Heffron stated.

That being said, Heffron fully admits recyclables are not worth much anywhere, including the Midwest.

“When China closed its borders on our recycling, some saw that as a crisis, but it’s also an opportunity to develop markets locally, regionally and nationally,” Heffron said.

Thus far, the group has come up with three priority materials for recycling: glass, paper and organics. Glass has a seriously negative value at -$20 per ton; separated paper could have more of a market but is mostly mixed, and a lot of organics (food) end up in the recycling stream.

A request for proposals will go out from the MPCA in the first quarter of 2010. Grants will be available for start ups, expansions and innovations that address end market solutions for recyclables.

The MPCA has also been collaborating with the NRRI on developing compostable serviceware, with a twist or two.

“These compostable plates and cups and to-go food containers are made from recycled paper, and have no fluorinated compounds. The problem is the higher cost,” said Heffron.

Shipping glass all the way to St. Paul is cost prohibitive. Heffron says the MPCA is looking at ways for municipalities to reuse the glass they are already collecting. One option may be a foam-glass aggregate that can be used as a base in road beds.

“The foam-glass aggregate could be a great alternative, and we are working on finding a company here in Minnesota that would want to do that,” Heffron stated.

While Heffron says the MPCA would gladly welcome any developing markets in northern Minnesota, the problem is a low concentration of materials, along with high transportation costs, making it a less appealing financial investment.