In the face of these changes, Sugar Land staff is educating residents and emphasizing that reducing and reusing wasteful items are the first lines of defense before turning to recycling.
“When you say, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ recycle is that third option, so we’re trying to push heavily and let people know, you have to focus on those first two,” Sugar Land Environmental Manager Taylor Danesi said. “With the material that you do end up with, make sure you recycle it responsibly in a way that it can have another life.”
While many of the changes in recycling rates across the globe can be attributed to Chinese trade policy, there are still factors, down to the individual level, that could make or break the future of local recycling programs.
“The future is changing, but don’t give up on recycling,” said Jordan Fengel, executive director of the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling. “There’s a lot of work to do, but it has to be done, and I don’t foresee recycling going away.”
THE GREEN WALL
One of the largest difficulties for American recycling programs has been the changes in China’s policy for importing recycled materials globally.
According to officials from Waste Management, one of the largest processors of recycling in the country and the seventh-largest exporter of all goods by volume in the U.S., China at one point a few years ago used to consume 50% of all paper and plastic recycled in the world, with 13.2 million tons a year being imported from the U.S.
But with the passage of China’s National Sword policy, mixed paper and plastic imports are banned, and the country may halt imports of all international recycled materials by 2020.
“Because of this, recyclers are continuing to build alternative markets and move materials to other places on the globe,” said Sherrell Cordas, public affairs senior specialist for Waste Management.
Before it halts recycling imports completely, China has drastically increased its quality standards for the materials it will accept—the nation now only accepts recyclables with a contamination rate of no more than 0.5%. Sugar Land has a contamination rate of nearly 5%, well below the national average of 25%.
The increase in quality requirements, coupled with the heavily reduced demand for recyclables in the global market, means that the cost for processing recycled goods goes up, while the market value for the processed materials goes down.
In Sugar Land, the recycling program has not typically been a revenue generator, nor has it been a large expense, said Stacie Henderson, Sugar Land director of environmental and neighborhood services.
At this point, Sugar Land has not felt major effects to its recycling program but is remaining aware, Henderson said.
“The benefit of recycling is to make sure the materials have a place to go, and that’s not the landfill,” Henderson said.
According to the city’s fiscal year 2018-19 budget documents, the solid waste fund used to remove residential trash generated revenue of roughly $8 million, including $7.4 million in collection and recycling fees. About $1,500 of the total revenue came from the city’s recycling programs.
As of Jan. 1, residents pay $18.91 per month for solid waste services, including weekly recycling pickups.
RECYCLING AT HOME
The average person can do little to influence China’s policy changes. The factor they can most directly influence is a city’s contamination rate, or the measure of how much nonrecyclable material becomes mixed into recycling.
According to Waste Management’s estimates, the average contamination rate measured in its materials recovery facilities is about 25%, meaning one-fourth of the recycling it receives ends up in a landfill, either because it is nonrecyclable or because the material is in no condition to be recycled.
Danesi said Sugar Land does not have a contamination rate issue due to public education, community events and monitoring contamination data.
“We don’t have a contamination rate issue in Sugar Land, but it’s always something that people need to be considerate of,” Danesi said.
Contamination leads to higher costs for sorting, cleaning and processing materials to sell to buyers. In other words, the messier a person is when it comes to recycling, the more damage they do to their own government’s ability to collect their recycling and keep their local recycling programs alive.
“The quality of materials entering the marketplace plays a huge factor in the continuation of recycling programs. Good-quality materials help keep costs down and allow the materials to become feedstock used by mills,” Cordas said. “Residents should focus on recycling clean and dry bottles, cans, paper and cardboard in order to provide quality feedstock to the market that mills can use instead of virgin resources.”
Aside from keeping recycling dry and clean, the best way to reduce contamination is by learning what a city’s recycling program accepts and does not accept in their bins or curbside pickup.
In 2017, China was importing roughly 1.3 million tons of recyclables each year. As of 2018, the country is only importing 70,000 tons, a 94% year-over-year decrease.
Imports to other Asian countries, including Malaysia, Thailand and India, have increased to make up for the shortfall, but those countries are closing their ports and shipping materials back to their originating countries because of high contamination rates, according to a Republic Services report.
Henderson said she thinks the China Sword policy will open up opportunities in the U.S. for purchasing and repurposing recyclable materials.
“Some of what we’ve already seen happening is that we’re finding other markets,” she said. “The United States is, I think, looking at some things that we probably haven’t looked at in the past in order to find new markets for some materials.”
Fengel said recycling programs could flourish if businesses in the U.S. were able to start buying the recycled materials that were previously sold to China.
“The crisis is really a beaming opportunity for Texas to become one of the major inlets and outlets of materials in the nation,” Fengel said.
Additional reporting by Alex Hosey and Nola Z. Valente