Chinese regulations sends recycling into the trash


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New Chinese regulations on what is acceptable recycled trash is causing trash companies throughout the U.S. to send the recyclables into the trash heap.

In the past, the municipalities would have shipped much of their used paper, plastics and other scrap materials to China for processing. But as part of a broad antipollution campaign, China announced last summer that it no longer wanted to import “foreign garbage.” Since Jan. 1 it has banned imports of various types of plastic and paper, and tightened standards for materials it does accept.

While some waste managers already send their recyclable materials to be processed domestically, or are shipping more to other countries, others have been unable to find a substitute for the Chinese market. “All of a sudden, material being collected on the street doesn’t have a place to go,” said Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services, one of the largest waste managers in the country.

In other words, there is no market for recycled trash. It has no value. No one wants it. Thus, even though it sounds good and allows people to make believe they are saving the environment by recycling, it is an inefficient waste of resources, as the article notes:

Recycling companies “used to get paid” by selling off recyclable materials, said Peter Spendelow, a policy analyst for the Department of Environmental Quality in Oregon. “Now they’re paying to have someone take it away.”

In some places, including parts of Idaho, Maine and Pennsylvania, waste managers are continuing to recycle but are passing higher costs on to customers, or are considering doing so. “There are some states and some markets where mixed paper is at a negative value,” said Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management, which handles 10 million tons of recycling per year. “We’ll let our customers make that decision, if they’d like to pay more and continue to recycle or to pay less and have it go to landfill.”

Economic realities always rule. The problem is when people create fantasies that have no connection with those rules.

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5 comments

  • Kyle

    The only household items that are actually worth recycling are aluminum cans. Everything else you typically recycle wastes more energy then simply throwing it out. The best way to help protect the environment is to reduce your consumption and reuse as much as you can.

  • A bit of the opposite situation with used fryer oil. Restaurants used to pay to have it hauled off; now biodiesel outfits pay restaurants.

  • eddie willers

    In other words, there is no market for recycled trash. It has no value. No one wants it.

    As soon as a certain waste becomes valuable enough, someone will offer to pick it up for free.
    Why do people not understand the most basic laws of economics?

  • wodun

    Economic realities always rule.

    I disagree. I have brought up this problem to a number of friends who are econuts. They have zero problem having people and communities pay more money to recycle. The extra costs are worth it to them because it is a moral obligation to recycle. Even if you try and explain that the energy (co2/H20) is higher than just putting trash in a landfill or burning it for electricity, they don’t care.

    It isn’t about the cost of recycling but the act. The act makes them feel good and the costs are dissociated.

  • wayne

    This came up a few weeks ago in the WSJ– (lengthy article)
    –the Chinese have tightened up on the level of “organic contamination” they will accept with recyclable’s.
    I forget the percentage’s, but they didn’t sound unreasonable to me.

    Newsprint is the most recycled paper-product, but those prices are roughly equal to new newsprint. (Most recycled “paper” is converted into cardboard in China. )

    “Plastic” followed by cans, are the big offenders; different plastic types can’t be mixed together above a very small percentage, otherwise it can’t be used, and both plastic & cans need to be washed to remove chemicals & food residue.

    Physical sorting & cleaning of “plastic” and “paper,” are the labor-intensive parts of the recycling stream.

    Tangentially; I used to live in a city that gave me a credit on my garage bill, if I voluntarily recycled paper and plastic, so I did…Then I moved to a city that charged me extra to collect recyclable’s, so I stopped…

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