China, for decades the world’s largest importer of waste paper, used plastic and scrap metal, last year stopped accepting certain kinds of recyclables and tightened its standards for impurities in scrap bales. In making the changes, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment cited environmental damage caused by “dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes” mixed in with solid waste that can be recycled into raw materials.
Many Americans now have access to single-stream recycling, which spares them the trouble of sorting and separating plastics, paper, glass and metal. But single-stream recycling has created headaches for Chinese processors. Even after sorting at a U.S. recycling facility, a plastic container might make it into a shipment of tin cans. Glass breaks, and shards are mixed in with pieces of paper.
The industry standard for contamination typically ranges between 1 percent and 5 percent. Under the new policy, China’s standard is 0.5 percent.
“They didn’t just change the policies, they radically changed the entire world market in one fell swoop,” said Joe Greer, director of sales for Buffalo Recycling Enterprises, which accepts recyclables from a number of small towns along Lake Erie.
Recyclers have stockpiled certain materials while they look for buyers. Some types of scraps have declined in value, while others have become worthless. Many large cities have just absorbed the losses, fearing that passing on the cost to residents would discourage recycling.
Small towns cannot bear that financial burden.
Instead, they’ve had to scale back the types of recyclables they accept or have started charging fees to cover the ballooning costs of their programs. The result is a growing disparity between the recycling services available to city dwellers and those for rural and small-town residents.
“Rural communities have this challenge of very small volume, and the cost of collecting and transporting something of very low value in the market is going to exceed that value,” said Susan Robinson, senior policy director with Houston-based Waste Management, the largest waste collection company in North America.
Small-town recycling programs already are more expensive than those in bigger cities. Houses tend to be farther apart, making collection more expensive. Rural communities spend more to transport their recyclables to centers that can find markets. And they cannot produce the volume of material that buyers want.
Hannibal, like many small towns, never made much money from lower-quality plastics, such as Nos. 3 through 7. Those containers are composed of a blend of plastics and other materials that don’t break down easily. And buyers tend to want truckloads of the stuff — more than a place such as Hannibal can provide.
Since China tightened its policies, the town simply cannot afford to accept those plastics. While 2 Rivers Industries, Hannibal’s recycler, used to make a profit of about $30 a ton on those plastics, it now must pay $60 to $70 a ton just to send them to processors.
Melonie Nevels, executive director of 2 Rivers Industries, said it has stored 40 tons of low-grade plastics. To avoid the cost of transporting the plastic to a landfill, she is trying to sell it to a company that will burn it for fuel.
Some Chinese companies are expanding into the United States to create more capacity to process recycled goods. Several recycling experts said that as the domestic market for scraps develops, the recycling industry should stabilize. But small towns will remain vulnerable to jolts along the way.
“In small cities, they have smaller budgets and they just pay closer attention in a lot of senses to what their costs are,” said Mathias Harter, general manager of Green Circle Recycling and a former mayor of La Crosse, Wis. The town no longer accepts plastic Nos. 3, 6 and 7.
“They don’t have as much to work with for resources,” Harter said. “They don’t have as great of economies of scale. You often see they are the ones paying very close attention to fine lines and expenses.”
Towns in Erie County, Pa., have had to cut back on accepting glass, some plastics and even some paper. Brittany Prischak, the county’s environmental sustainability coordinator, said she fears the new limits will make it much harder for recycling to survive in small-town Pennsylvania, despite the requirement under state law that communities with more than 10,000 residents have programs.
Columbia County in New York exhausted its annual recycling budget over the summer. Beginning this year, the county will charge residents $50 for a permit to drop recyclables off at one of its recycling centers.
Jolene Race, director of Columbia County Solid Waste Department, said she believes bigger cities soon will have to make similar decisions — “unless you have a huge tax base where they just don’t care. But smaller counties don’t and they have to pass [the cost] on.”
To be sure, some larger cities also have been affected by the shift in the industry. Sacramento, for example, briefly had to stop accepting lower-quality plastics. But it was able to begin collecting them again once Waste Management found a buyer.
Joseph Pickard, chief economist and director of commodities for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, said new markets may open for various materials and technological advances could improve sorting.
“If there’s buy-in from the community that recycling is something they’re going to put weight and value on and they’re willing to pay for, then that gives municipalities more leeway in what they will accept,” Pickard said.
But Prischak said there is little doubt that the current turbulence is widening “a rural-urban divide” when it comes to recycling opportunities for residents.
“Before the changes even started to happen, you could see the difference of where recycling was most convenient in urban areas versus where it’s difficult like rural areas to recycle even if they want to recycle,” she said.
Beitsch is a reporter for Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.