Nebraska Recycling Council

The China Syndrome

Did you know that China is the world’s largest importer of waste?

Last year, according to a recent article in “Resource Recycling”, “Chinese manufacturers and recyclers imported 7.3 million metric tons of waste plastics (valued at $3.7 billion), accounting for 56 percent of world imports in that category. It also took in more than half of the world’s exports of waste paper.”

This is about to change, and it will likely have a notable impact on recycling in Nebraska. On July 18, China notified the World Trade Organization that it would place an outright ban on imports of 24 categories of solid waste by the end of 2017, including several plastic resins (including PET, PE, PVC, PS, and “other” plastics), textiles, “unsorted” mixed paper, and other materials. They recently clarified that this will only ban “post-consumer” sources, but this doesn’t bode well for residential recycling programs.

Previous restrictions imposed by China, “Operation Green Fence” and the recent “National Sword”, caused a great deal of disruption in the global recycling industry. The new ban may have a bigger impact yet.

Will it affect recycling in Nebraska?

The Nebraska Recycling Council is working to improve efficiencies in the collection, transport, and processing of recyclables in Nebraska. Recycling systems in rural Nebraska generally differ from those in larger metropolitan areas. The source-separation that rural Nebraskans are accustomed to may be one of the best safeguards against the effects of the ban, as contamination in single-stream programs is higher. Processors, however, may have to limit the materials they accept (e.g. excluding plastics #3-7) until markets improve. Materials recovery facilities (MRFs) may need to invest in better sorting infrastructure, or risk exceeding contamination tolerances that devalue their commodities.

Some see this ban as an opportunity to strengthen the domestic recycling industry. Closed Loop Fund has been investing in recycling infrastructure in the U.S. through below-market loans since 2014. A bill called the Zero Waste Development and Expansion Act was recently introduced in the U.S. Congress by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., that would invest $100 million in recycling facilities.

Here are some tips for weathering the ban from The Recycling Partnership:

Maintain a level head. Focus on the fundamentals in good times and bad, and your program will be stronger and more resilient.

Keep your friends close. Clear, frequent communication with your MRF will help you anticipate market challenges and ensure you’re on the same page regarding material mix, quality, and resident communication.

Quality counts. No matter the market situation, you’re better off with a clean recycling stream. Low contamination rates keep processing costs down and heighten marketability of materials. Use these 6 steps to keep contamination in check.

Stay the course. Recycling is a highly appreciated public service that delivers powerful environmental benefits and reduces dependence on costly disposal. Keep your residents recycling and maximize the capacity of your program. Click here for free graphics to engage your public.

As with any market-based industry, cycles come and go. Stay tuned for more tips and tools to weather the lows and stretch out the highs.

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