The Chinese recycling bombshell and us

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Save the planet and save a buck! If you care about the environment and your pocketbook, recycling’s been “twofer.” Not only did you avoid paying to dispose of solid waste in a landfill (called a tipping fee), but you’d collected a commodity that could be sold and used as a raw material in a production process.

China’s decision to close the door to most of what is collected through curbside recycling has changed the “save a buck” equation.

China: the world’s dominant waste importer

China, including Hong Kong, imported an estimated 170 million metric tons of plastic waste from 1988 to 2016, 72 percent of the global total. Of the 57 million metric tons of recovered paper traded globally, China bought half, including much of the 20 million metric tons exported by the United States.

The party’s over. A year ago, China announced that it would stop being our enabler by accepting the jumble of plastic and paper we put in those blue boxes. They now have enough trash of their own.

After the fall

Paper and plastic waste going to China dropped 94 percent from January 2017 to January 2018, a combined reduction of 267,000 metric tons. Prices for mixed plastic fell dramatically. With the loss of the largest outlet for mixed plastics, one source estimates that the nation’s plastics recycling rate (total recycled material as a share of amount generated) was halved in 2018 relative to 2015, from 9.1 percent to 4.4 percent.

The market for mixed paper collapsed, as well. The price of mixed paper plummeted from a U.S. average of $89 per ton in February 2017 to $17 per ton a year later. The price of cardboard fell from nearly $175 per ton to $82 per ton.

Without a place to sell recyclables, many municipalities report landfilling materials that were once recycled, particularly on the West Coast. East Coast markets have seen significant price declines, but as they were less dependent on China, the market disruption has been less.

Managing solid waste in N.Y.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation reports that the average New Yorker generates about 4½ pounds of trash per day, comparable to the average for the nation. The Solid Waste Management Act of 1988 sets forth the state’s waste management priorities: to reduce the volume of waste, reuse or recycle as feasible, recover energy from the remaining materials if possible, and landfill what is left.

Monroe County solid waste management

Per its 2015 Solid Waste Management Plan, Monroe County operates four solid waste management facilities.

  • The Mill Seat Landfill in Riga operates under a 49-year contract with Waste Management that began in 2002.
  • The Monroe County Recycling Center on Lee Road in Rochester, opened since 1992, receives and processes the materials collected through curbside recycling and is also operated by Waste Management. In 2014, the facility was converted to “single stream” recycling, in which all materials are mixed.
  • The Resource Recovery Facility on Emerson in Rochester, open since 1979, receives and processes solid waste from industrial, institutional and commercial sources.
  • The latest addition to county facilities is the ecopark in the town of Chili. Opened in 2011, the ecopark receives a long list of materials that either should not be put into the landfill or are more difficult to recycle.

‘If in doubt, throw it out’

Can lifestyle guilt can be assuaged by recycling? OK, most of us buy too much stuff and then, in a fit of Kondo-like decluttering, get it out of our homes. Some of what we drop at a thrift store or put in our recycling bins will have a second life outside of a landfill.

But much of it won’t. Thrift stores have become mini-transfer stations for junk that has no useful second life. Own your guilt and throw it in the trash.

The same applies to curbside recycling. Mike Garland, director of environmental services for Monroe County, notes that the curbside recycling program suffers from “wishcycling.” Guilty as charged: If I’m not sure something can be recycled, I’ll just throw it in the bin anyway and let the county sort it out. “Please don’t!” urges Garland. As noted above, markets for recycled materials are tenuous enough already. Forcing the county to sort through what can and can’t be recycled just adds cost. Large items such as appliances can be taken to the ecopark. They also recycle block Styrofoam (but not peanuts!).

The scourge of curbside recycling  

Plastic bags foul the machinery and contaminate much of what is collected. See this story from the Nightly Business Report. Take these back to the grocery store.

And, yes, good citizenship can cost you something. Items with refrigerants that need to be removed are accepted at the ecopark for a fee of $15. Electronics may NOT be thrown in the trash; although the ecopark charges for electronics recycling, there are many locations in the county that do not.

What happens to what we throw in those blue bins?

Waste Management spokesperson Gerritt Trierweiler reports that the material arriving at the municipal recycling facility is 40 percent paper, with glass and cardboard at 19 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

  • Mixed paper is still recycled, but is sold but at prices that don’t cover the cost of transportation. That’s better than paying for the privilege of burying it, to be sure. Cardboard fetches a higher price than mixed paper.
  • There is no outlet for mixed glass. What we collect in our recycling bins is ground up and used as a temporary cover at the landfill.
  • Many plastics, particularly PET and HDPE, are recycled, although prices remain soft. Other plastics are likely headed for the landfill.
  • The market for metals, like all commodities, varies by type and current market conditions.

What about food waste?

An EPA study in 2014 found that yard trimmings and food waste accounted for 28 percent of municipal solid waste—that’s a lot! And there’s a good alternative to simply throwing it in the trash: Composting reduces the volume of food waste dramatically, leaving nothing but a good quality soil enhancer. We’ve been composting all of our food waste plus the coffee grounds and food waste from CGR for years. Composting also generates much less methane than decomposition in a landfill.

Cornell Cooperative Extension provides excellent resources to support home composting. If you are short of space for your own composting operation, you can sign up for a collection service that will do the work for you. Community Composting, for example, collects food waste weekly from many parts of Monroe County; pricing starts at $30 a month. They also accept bin swaps at the Brighton Farmers Markets from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays for $4 a swap.

Do your part

Taking responsibility for your solid waste isn’t complicated. Keep track of what can and can’t be recycled. Top take-aways: NO PLASTIC BAGS! And send things like plastic straws, foam egg cartons and prescription bottles right into your regular trash. Cardboard is good—but don’t tie it into bundles as rope jams the machinery.

And consider compositing your food waste. You’d be surprised at how much it cuts down what you’re throwing in the trash.

6 thoughts on “The Chinese recycling bombshell and us

  1. Pingback: Is modern incineration an answer to our solid waste problem? - Rochester BeaconRochester Beacon

  2. Our household has used Community Composting for a few years now and can vouch for the outfit’s conscientious service. It costs $30 a month for weekly pickup, not $30 a week.

  3. There are many things we can do to cut down on our waste. I’m increasingly shopping at Abundance Food Market in the South Wedge, which has an extensive bulk section. They provide containers, but you can bring your own, weigh it while it’s empty, and they will deduct that weight at the checkout. We have backyard compost and less and less packaging with our groceries, so both our trash and recycling volumes are going down. However, I’m retired and happen to be a home cook so I have use of those basic ingredients that Abundance carries in bulk. We need to find ways to make it easier for people to do the right thing. It sure doesn’t appear that market solutions are working. Time for some more regulations and taxes before we all drown in our own crap!
    Congrats to Oregonians for achieving 90% bottle redemption!

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