WasteExpo 2019: Assessing recycling post-China
Cheryl Coleman, director of EPA's Resource Conservation and Sustainability Division, Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery

WasteExpo 2019: Assessing recycling post-China

Panelists say China's restrictions and bans on scrap imports illuminate the issue the U.S. has with contamination.

May 7, 2019

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Cheryl Coleman, director of the EPA's Resource Conservation and Sustainability Division, Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery, had an important message for attendees of the WasteExpo 2019 session titled Post China & the Current Status of Recycling. “Recycling not dead, China not responsible for the challenges we are facing today, and plastics are not evil, especially the 3 through 7s,” she said.

“We are America, and we are going to overcome this. No other country is going to stop us. Only we can stop us.”

Coleman said the federal government is committed to helping the U.S. get through this challenging time in recycling.

“Recycling can make you money,” she said, adding that data show the number of jobs and the tax revenue recycling operations generate, despite the greater volume of material that goes to landfill rather than being diverted for recycling.

She reminded attendees, “Quantity and quality matter.”

Katie Sandoe, chief commercial officer of Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority (LCSWMA), detailed her agency’s efforts to address quality-related issues affecting recycling in the two counties it serves.

“China is not the crisis,” Sandoe said, adding that China’s restrictions and bans on incoming scrap shipments from overseas illuminated the problem that already existed in the U.S. “Most people don’t know how to recycle,” she said.

LCSWMA is a regional public authority that serves 850,000 residents. Private haulers supply collection services to the municipalities within Lancaster and Dauphin counties. The recyclables collected by these companies are processed at Penn Waste’s material recovery facility (MRF) in York, Pennsylvania. The authority owns and operates a central transfer station; two waste-to-energy facilities; and a landfill for C&D waste, manufacturing waste and waste-to-energy residuals.

Roughly 255,000 tons are recycled from commercial and residential sources in the counties LCSWMA serves. Contamination rates for the collected material range from 25 percent to 30 percent.

Sandoe said the public and private sectors must collaborate to ensure recycling remains sustainable in the U.S.

LCSWMA developed a three-part solution to the problem of recycling-related ignorance. Sandoe said the authority simplified the recycling process, standardized the recycling message and publicize the need to “Recycle Right.”

The authority focused on collecting the “Big 4” for recycling. These are the materials—cardboard, glass containers, plastic bottles and jars with necks and metal food and beverage cans—that have the biggest impact on diversion as well as domestic markets.

Sandoe said communicating in shapes, colors and symbols further helped to bring the message home to residents.

LCSWMA met with key leadership at Penn Waste to understand the challenges the company was experiencing. “We wanted to make sure we were aligned,” she said.

As a result, the authority moved to a monthly market-rate based arrangement. It also collaborated with marketing and sales at Penn Waste to ensure consistent messaging for recycling education. LCSWMA made an effort to connect residents with the actual cost of recycling. It’s “valuable but not free,” Sandoe said of recycling.

The authority helped to implement the new guidelines through local ordinances and curbside collection contracts and also provided free resources to its municipalities and haulers.

“Changing behavior takes time,” Sandoe said, adding that simplicity and consistency are crucial. She said LCSWMA believes it will take three to five years to get the message out and see real change in its contamination levels.

Byron Luo of WinFibre US Inc. (formerly Ralison International Inc.), Chino, California, said, “Everyone seemed to be blaming China for this mess,” however he said the U.S. was not purposely targeted by China.

The major issues facing export to China include strict enforcement of 0.5 percent threshold for contamination, Luo said, adding that some ports in China are unloading 100 percent of incoming containers of recovered paper. Additionally, China has instituted a 25 percent tariff on U.S. imports, which he described as a reciprocal measure in response to the trade war between the U.S. and China. Then China introduced a mixed paper ban while also reducing the number of import permits it issues for recovered paper.

With the permit quota decline, only 10 million to 12 million metric tons of recovered paper are estimated to be permitted for import into China this year compared with 50 million metric tons per year that were permitted for import annually through 2016, he said.

The impact of these changes on Chinese mills, Luo said, included a shortage of recycled paper and extreme volatility in finished products and recycled paper market prices.

As a result, Luo said, companies are starting to cancel planned capacity increases in paper production in China. The country also has started to modernize its collection and recovery systems to recover more domestically generated recyclables.

WasteExpo 2019 is scheduled for May 6-9 in Las Vegas at the Las Vegas Convention Center.