China has prompted “a crisis in the recycling world” with its decision to no longer accept what its regulators call “foreign garbage” such as paper contaminated with pizza grease.
The action by China, long known for its willingness to import and repurpose recyclables from the United States and elsewhere, is being felt in Maine and around the nation.
“They put the hammer down,” said Kevin Roche, chief executive officer of ecomaine, the nonprofit that handles recyclables for about a third of Maine’s population. Although recyclers are feeling the effects of China’s ban on 24 kinds of recyclable materials, nothing has changed in curbside pickup, and Mainers themselves are unlikely to see any immediate impact.
The ban took effect Jan. 1, but it was announced in advance and the market preemptively adjusted last year. Ecomaine and other recycling services began to notice repercussions late last summer – until then, China had been accepting about half the world’s unwanted recyclables. Nationwide, bales of materials have been stacking up in recycling facilities, packaged to go but with no one willing to receive them.
“I would label it as a crisis in the recycling world,” Roche said.
But Maine has been lucky. The worst that’s happened to date, recyclers said, is that in some cases, bales of mixed paper (what ecomaine calls residential paper pack) or mixed plastics sit for longer, waiting for buyers.
Or nonbuyers, as the case may be. Bales of mixed paper that ecomaine had been getting $51 a ton for last year are now worthless. “Basically we are having to either give it away or having to pay to have it moved,” said ecomaine spokeswoman Lisa Wolff.
“It is a big challenge, obviously,” said Joseph Fusco, a vice president at Casella Waste Systems, which handles about 120,000 tons of recyclable materials annually from customers throughout Maine. “Material is moving. The issue is, at what price does it move?”
Moving recycling means sending it to a mill where it can be broken down and processed into usable materials. For ecomaine, that has meant forging some new relationships with brokers and buyers, some domestically in New York and Massachusetts, and some internationally, in Canada, India and Indonesia.
“There is no money in mixed paper,” said Joyce Levesque, the manager at Coastal Recycling, a small nonprofit that handles recycling for five towns Down East, including Hancock and Sullivan. Coastal Recycling works more with Canadian plants or occasionally mills in Massachusetts than it does with China. But as the demand from China drops, supplies stack up worldwide, lowering prices everywhere.
“We got $23 a ton and we paid $900 in freight,” Levesque said. At those rates, Levesque wonders, “Should we really be sending it?”
Roche’s perspective is that low prices or not, landfills should be a “last resort.”
“We feel, even if it is not earning any money, it is still more valuable than storing these future resources in a landfill,” he said.
ACCUSTOMED TO JUGGLING
Victor Horton of the Maine Resource Recovery Association, which works with 162 Maine towns and cities on waste management and recycling, said the Chinese regulations have made it harder for the Bangor-based nonprofit to find buyers for plastics like yogurt and salad containers, which almost always contain some food contamination. Horton said they’re making bales of them until they can find buyers.
Horton, like Roche, said fluctuation in the recycling business is nothing new. He has a list of about 50 brokers he works with regularly, who help him find homes for everything from mixed paper to rigid plastics (like say, dolls). Scrap materials have been one of America’s biggest exports to China; many of those shipping containers that arrive filled with consumer goods from China travel back to Asia packed with recyclables.
But recyclables handled by the Maine Resource Recovery Association are as likely to end up in processing plants in Ontario as they are China, Horton said. When a processing plant opened in Baltimore, recyclers rejoiced, he said.
“We were all excited. We were getting paid $60 a ton (for junk plastic),” he said. But then that plant closed abruptly.
In short, Horton is accustomed to juggling.
“This may blow over,” he said.
It’s a worldwide problem, but Horton speculates that politics as much as environmentalism may be playing into the Chinese decision.
“There is the official word, and then the unofficial political reason that they don’t like the way (President) Trump acts,” Horton said. “Some people say China has pulled some stuff on us because they don’t like the way our politics work. Is it that really the truth or did someone not get bribed the right way? All I know is, they are a lot more fussy.”
This isn’t the first time that China has cracked down on standards for recyclables. A Chinese policy called the Green Fence was implemented in 2013 to reduce the amount of food and trash that it imported. But the new Chinese rules include banning imports of 24 kinds of waste and limiting the amount of contamination levels in mixed paper it receives to 1 percent.
The industry standard in America is usually around 15 percent, ecomaine said. Mainers tend to be better about cleaning their recyclables before tossing them to the curb, and thus the average rate of contamination in the bales of residential paper pack that ecomaine produces for sale ranges between 3 percent and 5 percent, the nonprofit said. But even if every household scrubbed its recyclables before putting them curbside, they might not meet the new Chinese standard.
On the one hand, higher environmental standards are good for China, a country that struggles with air and water quality.
“I was kind of amazed at what levels of contamination they would accept,” Roche said.
On the other, that makes it hard to do business with China. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has said it will be impossible for most recyclers to meet those standards, and in December, the institute appealed to the World Trade Organization, citing concerns that China’s rules “will lead to extensive disruptions in global supply chains.”
STILL SOME RECYCLING POSITIVES
From Roche’s perspective, it’s not fair to blame China’s shift entirely. “It’s a tough market,” he said. “I don’t think that is the only reason. You can’t put it all on China.”
Furthermore, recyclers are coming off what he called “a very long stretch of a very strong market.”
Some sectors, such as corrugated cardboard, continue to be strong, not just for ecomaine but for other recyclers such as the Maine Resource Recovery Association.
Ecomaine budgets conservatively for just these kinds of troughs, Roche said, and balances deficits with electricity generation (it incinerates 180,000 tons of garbage annually) and tipping fees.
His rule for his business?
“If you don’t like what you see today, just wait a few minutes,” he said.
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: