Recycling crisis: China doesn’t want our waste. Now what?

Recycling used to be a money maker but now it’s costing us, and growing our landfills…

With probes and clipboards, Chinese inspectors tour Bay Area recycling centers at least once a month, testing our trash to see if it meets their new high standards.

Until recently, almost all of our vast piles of plastic and paper refuse were sold and shipped overseas, promising a new life for much of what we so blithely tossed away.

Now much is rejected as wet, dirty or worthless – a reversal that has turned our once-reliable recycling world upside down, as prices plummet and the cost of cleanup soars.

As a result, California’s once-proud recycling reputation is in a tailspin. About 35 million tons of garbage were dumped into landfills in 2016, up from 29.3 million tons in 2012. Recycling rates have fallen from 50 percent to 44 percent. The state’s goal of reaching a 75 percent recycling rate by next year is slipping further away.

With a shrunken market for our waste, fewer materials can be reclaimed – forcing us to re-think familiar conveniences. Certain plastics and papers are the biggest problem, especially if soiled by food or fluids. Careless customers may discover a note on their bin or no pickup at all.

That stuff inside your blue bin used to be worth about 65 cents. Now it costs 47 cents to haul it away and find someone who wants it.

“We’ve been lulled into thinking that we don’t have to pay for what’s put in the recycling cart,” said Mark Bowers of Sunnyvale’s Materials Recovery and Transfer Station, which sorts and processes much of the Peninsula’s solid waste. “But we do.”

To be sure, recycling is still good for the environment because it reduces the need to extract minerals, pump oil and cut down forests, according to Lance Klug of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.

What’s changed is the economics. Recyclables are just commodities, with values that swing in response to global supply and demand.

Our largest customer, China, was overwhelmed by the West’s waste. So it cut off imports of all but our cleanest and highest-grade materials — allowing only certain plastics, corrugated cardboard, newsprint and a few other categories. It has imposed a 99.5 percent purity standard that most exporters find all but impossible to meet.

Our waste managers are searching for new markets and improving their processing technologies. But there’s still too much stuff.  We’re stuck in a growing sea of refuse, driven by growth in the online economy and the increased complexity of packaging.

Too often we’re “aspirational recyclers,” tossing items that don’t really belong into the blue bin with the vague hope that they will be repurposed.

All those plastic “clamshell” containers? Shrink-wrapped packages? Used sandwich bags? Greasy pizza boxes? Amazon’s plastic envelopes? Juice pouches? Freezer-proof cartons? Sticky peanut butter jars?

No one wants them. They’re all ours now.

Losing China

Our local waste managers don’t actually turn our refuse back into raw materials. Instead, they haul it to their cacophonous processing plants, where valuables are sorted out with speed and precision by workers with masks, gloves and earplugs. Then they sell the baled goods to brokers, who sell it to “reclaimers,” who crush, melt, grind and reshape them into new materials.

In the early days of recycling, most of the reclaimers were domestic, with plants in San Leandro, Antioch, Oakland, Santa Clara and other regions of the U.S.

“Recycling was a radical notion. People said we were a bunch of hippies digging through trash, who would never change anything,” said Martin Bourque of Berkeley’s Ecology Center, one of the oldest recycling operations in the nation. U.S. reclaimers wanted things clean and well-sorted, he recalled.

“There were no Asian markets,” he said.

But China’s booming economy was hungry for raw materials. And it was lucrative to sell and ship our plastic and paper 10,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean on just-emptied empty container ships.

“They were buying up everything they could get their hands on and were willing to accept pretty contaminated materials — and paid high prices,” said Bourque.

This growing dependence on the Chinese market shrank our domestic reclaimers, which struggled with California’s stringent environmental regulations and the high cost of living and labor. Only heavy glass, aluminum, tin and steel stayed in the U.S.

But this hid a dirty secret:  A lot of what we sent overseas was trash. Only about 25 percent of what went to China in “mixed bales” of low-quality plastic was actually recyclable, said Mark Murray, director of the Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste.

Faced with increasing material and contamination, Chinese operators pulled out the good stuff — and burned, buried or dumped into rivers whatever couldn’t be sold, he said.

“We weren’t recycling as much as we thought we were,” said Murray. “There was an assumption that because China was paying for these materials, they had a magic way to recycle all of it. They were never recycling all of it. They were recycling some of it.”

China’s new policy has virtually halted our convenient conveyor belt.

“China is like the girl who broke up with you because you didn’t clean up in the kitchen and threw your clothes on the floor,” said Bowers. “She’s done with you.”

Seeking new markets

Only recyclables that pass China’s very stringent pre-shipment physical inspection – such as plastics with less than 0.5 percent contamination with stuck food or other impurities — are certified for shipment. The nation has banned 40 different types of solid waste, including motors and wires. Next year, they’ll ban another 16 types, including some forms of stainless steel. It only accepts No. 1 and 2 plastics, such as water, milk and detergent containers. It rejects plastics No. 3 through 7, from ketchup bottles and packing peanuts to newspaper bags.

Inspectors — representing China and other destinations — arrive at Bay Area facilities to examine each bale, sometimes asking that one be broken up so they can peer inside. With probes, they measure moisture content. Sometimes they watch the bales get loaded onto trucks.

“If a cart’s lid is left open and it rains, or if a jug of soda has liquid at the bottom… that moisture can contaminate a whole load,” causing it to go to landfill, said Emily Hanson of GreenWaste Recovery in San Jose. “Your neighbor’s recycling can contaminate your recycling.”

Many recyclers no longer want to risk shipping to China. If a shipment is rejected when it arrives, they may have to quickly find another overseas buyer or ship it all the way back to the U.S., costing thousands of dollars. China also has enacted a 25 percent tariff on all U.S. paper imports. Hanson said that GreenWaste Recovery hasn’t shipped to China for a year.

The Bay Area’s waste managers are seeking new buyers, like Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, which still accept low-quality paper and plastics. But the surge in supply has driven down prices, and those nations are also starting to require inspections and adopting restrictions and high standards.

“With the world vying for them, they get to be picky,” said Hanson.

California’s smaller cities and rural recycling operations have been hit the hardest, forcing places like Manteca to reduce what they accept.

In the Bay Area, waste processors are investing and upgrading, adding new equipment and workers to produce higher-quality bales of finished recycling. San Francisco’s Recology, which processes 650 tons of mixed recyclables every day, just finished a $14 million upgrade to its Pier 96 facility, adding seven high-speed, computer-controlled optical machines to better sort materials into 14 different types and reduce contamination.

The domestic market is strengthening, especially for high quality materials like clean glass, cardboard, high-quality plastic and aluminum cans. There’s a recycled glass plant in Modesto. A Lodi company turns unwanted plastics into lumber. Bales of clean paper and corrugated cardboard go to paper mills in the eastern U.S. and Canada.

But the crisis triggered by China’s decision could have an upside, experts say, if it leads to better solutions for managing our waste.

It could spur the creation of more profitable uses for recycled materials, the experts say. It could inspire new rules for packaging, shifting more responsibility back to manufacturers and shippers. It could improve education for consumers, helping us make wiser shopping decisions.


WIH Resource Group is global leader in providing diversified environmental (solid waste management, recycling and M&A consulting), financial analysis, solid waste planning, expert witness services, alternative fuels for fleets, transportation / logistics consulting solutions to its Clients throughout North America and internationally.

WRG provides solutions to complex challenges to its clients in the areas of environmental management, alternative fuel fleet conversion studies, legal expert witness services, safety, customer satisfaction surveys, fleet management matters, equipment and assets valuations, mergers & acquisitions (M&A), landfill gas management, renewable energy, waste & recycling collections, business process improvement, procurement services assistance, waste management operations, recycling processing, transfer stations, operational performance assessments (OPAs), recycling facilities (MRFs) studies, transportation and other feasibility and related financial analysis.

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