China’s National Sword campaign to increase the quality of imported recyclables is cutting into the city of Durango’s budget and private industry profits.
In the last few months, China, the largest importer of recyclables, has started enforcing bans on many types of materials because the were so badly contaminated with trash, Reuters reported.
“They want American paper, but they don’t want American garbage, which is fair,” said Mark Thompson, the owner of Phoenix Recycling.
China’s ban flooded the domestic market with recyclables, leading prices to fall dramatically, Montezuma County Landfill Manager Shak Powers said.
“Last month was the biggest price drop ever for fiber, paper, cardboard,” Thompson said. Since then, the prices have recovered somewhat.
As a result of China’s ban, the city of Durango no longer receives monthly payments from Friedman Recycling in Albuquerque that covered the cost of shipping bales of paper, metal and plastic – materials that are part of the city’s single-stream program, said Levi Lloyd, city operations director.
The monthly payments were a form of profit-sharing from Friedman, a company that processes the city’s recyclables. Before the market crashed, the city was receiving about $1,000 to $2,000 a month.
Durango collects 66 tons a week in single-stream recycling materials, and contamination is rarely an issue, he said. All of the city’s recycling efforts divert about 30 percent of residential and commercial waste from the landfill, said Imogen Ainsworth, the city’s sustainability coordinator.
Statewide, only 12 percent of waste is diverted from landfills, according to a report from Ecocycle.
Residential fees cover the cost of operations and recycling in the city, Lloyd said. Next year, residents could pay $1.61 a month more for trash and recycling, an 8.5 percent increase, that will indirectly help fund recycling.
“The 8.5 percent increase frees up revenue for trash and recycling programs by making the sustainability programs self-sustaining,” Lloyd said. Trash and recycling fees have funded sustainability programs, such as household hazardous waste collection events.
In light of the market changes, the Montezuma County Landfill hired a person to sort materials before baling and shipping them to bolster the value of its products, Powers said. The county has processed 782.27 tons of recyclables this year.
Montezuma County does not accept single-stream materials, which keeps the products cleaner and therefore more valuable, Powers said.
“Anybody that is going to stay competitive is going to have clean their products up a lot,” he said.
China’s proposed standards may allow only 0.5 percent contamination starting next year, according WasteDive, a recycling and waste industry publication.
Single-stream recycling can be challenging because of “wish-recyclers,” those who aren’t sure if something can be recycled and throw it in the bin anyway, Powers said. It’s a trade off, because single-stream recycling increases participation and decreases collection costs, but companies have to invest more money in sorting the product, Thompson said.
Across the U.S., many large scale sorting facilities rely on automation that can’t sort the product as well as people.
Phoenix Recycling collects single-stream residential recycling from the county, and the staff sorts it largely by hand, which allows the company to more easily increase the quality of the bales of recycled material.
Thompson said single-stream recycling still makes sense because new types of packaging are entering the market all the time.
“I think single-stream is the way to do it. The question is, after you have collected it, then what? ... I believe you have to sort it locally after it comes off the truck and before it goes into the baler,” he said.
Baling smashes all the single-steam products – such as aluminum cans, paper, plastic water bottles – together, and sometimes it’s impossible to separate the products, he said. Separating out aluminum, paper, plastic and other material into product-specific bales at the city’s facility would not be impossible but would require a much larger workforce, a redesign of the facility and a much larger facility for storage, Lloyd said.
These changes would not provide the city with any additional recycling revenue, he said. “I think single-stream is sustainable. New markets will come on line soon, and recycling organizations are working to sort out the import issues with China,” he said.