The Recycle Bin: Why did China stop taking US recyclables?


Today’s questions today are ones on everyone’s mind:

1. Why did China stop taking U.S. recyclables and put recycling in such a mess today?

Actually, the charge is not strictly true. In 2018, China set stricter standards to recycling imports because it was costing them too much to separate the recyclable items from the embedded trash. This decision by China was so disruptive because it revealed the weaknesses in our own underdeveloped recycling system.

China used to accept about 5% contamination rate per load, but after their National Sword program, it reduced that to .5% (essentially zero contamination). So, there are still some recycling markets there, but we in the U.S. have generally not been able to meet the newer, stricter standards for contamination.

Maine’s bottle redemption program is so steady and successful because it separates recyclables at the redemption centers so that they can meet strict contamination standards.

2. So, why are we stopping the recycling of glass?

Glass is very heavy (currently more than 11% of our current single stream recycling efforts, by weight), but it is actually not being recycled at all by our recycling processor. Mixed glass is difficult to handle, and it also has very little value as a reusable commodity. As a result of that, we are currently paying to have it collected, paying again to have it processed, and paying again to have it dumped in a landfill. The total is about $185/ton for a product that can be sent directly to the landfill for about $80/ton. The difference could greatly help fund our efforts to improve our overall recycling programs. The Brunswick Recycling and Sustainability Committee is working hard to find ways to add glass back into our program, but, for now, we need to work towards the potential annual savings (as much as $10,000 by some estimates) by sending it directly to the landfill.

3. What is “contamination” in recycling?

Contamination (sometimes called “residuals”) is anything that is collected in the recycling bins, but cannot actually be recycled. Those things include food waste of any kind, cardboard that has grease or food on it, items of non-recyclable plastics (such as lawn furniture, plastic rakes or snow shovels, plastic bags, and 5-gallon pails), wood products, or styrofoam, whether or not it is stamped with a symbol for number 6 plastic. In future columns, we will discuss more specific items, and why they are not recyclable. In general, anything that is dirty, too small for the sorting equipment to handle, likely to tangle up the sorting equipment and jam it, is too heavy and bulky for the sorting equipment to handle, or is plastic without a recycling logo on it, cannot be recycled. We need to throw these in the trash for now, and make stronger efforts to not use such items in the first place.

Harry Hopcroft is a member of the Brunswick Recycling & Sustainability Committee. Submit questions to The Recycle Bin to [email protected]

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