In January, China started enforcing its new National Sword policy, which bans 24 types of recycle materials, including some plastics and unsorted mixed paper. Until this year, China was importing about 50 percent of the world’s recyclables.
However, much of the material was highly contaminated with materials that are completely unacceptable for processing or would be appropriate only in a different stream, (e.g. glass). This contamination caused environmental concerns in China.
Therefore, in late 2017, China informed the World Trade Organization of the upcoming ban on recyclables containing more than 0.5 percent contamination. This is a reduction from the previous standard of 3 percent to 5 percent contamination allowed per bale of material.
“Although Los Alamos County residents make a real effort to recycle right, our recycle material has 17 percent contamination,” Environmental Services Manager Angelica Gurule said.
In Los Alamos, major contaminants are:
- food waste, including grease on cardboard, paper or greasy pizza boxes
- plastic bags
- bagged recyclables
The lower contamination limits and China ban are impacting material recovery facilities (MRFs) throughout the United States in two ways: processing costs and market value of the end product. The impact is being experienced by Friedman Recycling, currently contracted with Los Alamos County. Friedman has had to slow its sorting lines to half speed and hire additional employees to reduce contamination rates. This has substantially increased the recycle processing cost. To offset the new processing costs, municipalities such as El Paso, Durango, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque are considering the need to raise the recycling rates charged to their citizens.
“Recycling programs are under a lot of strain,” Friedman said. “We all need to work together to keep recycling viable in our region.”
“The mixed recycle market is volatile. At one point the County was generating revenue from the mixed recycle program. Today the County is paying for the mixed recyclables to be processed,” Gurule said. “It is only a matter of time before we feel the financial implications of the China ban. Neighboring communities have already experienced significantly increased processing fees. The City of El Paso, also a Friedman customer, was asked to pay $115 per ton. Freidman has not yet increased fees for Los Alamos. We will continue our best effort to recycle right by reducing our contamination rate. Despite rising costs for mixed recycle at this time it remains less expensive to recycle than to send the material to the landfill.”
Moreover, since China has banned materials and is no longer purchasing recycle materials there is a reduction in markets for once valuable materials. With very few recycling recovery plants in the U.S., supply exceeds demand. This has significantly reduced the market value of recyclables. Zero Waste Team is urging residents to Recycle Right.
“It’s important to know what can and cannot be recycled in Los Alamos County. Just because it has a triangle or a number does not mean it’s recyclable,” said Tiffany Pegoda, Zero Waste team member. “In Los Alamos, we see a lot of glass bottles and plastic bags in the carts, as well as bagged recycling. These are not acceptable in the blue recycle roll cart.”
See the table below, which demonstrates the composition of Los Alamos mixed recycle.
Plastics #3-#7 0.39
Rigid Plastic 0.42
Pots & Pans/Scrap Metals 0.52
HDPE Color 0.75
HDPE Natural 1.13
Aluminum Cans 1.24
Tin Cans 2.03
Old Corrugated Containers (Cardboard) 15.02
Residual (Trash, Glass, Plastic Bags, etc.) 17.11
Mixed Paper 46.64