Residents who want to curb the rising cost of recycling can sort materials and clean what they take to the Durango Recycle Center – efforts that could help reduce the cost of processing recyclables from post-consumer conditions to production quality.
But much of the momentum to normalize recycling rates isn’t all up to residents or policymakers; the cost of recycling materials in private markets worldwide plays a role.
The city of Durango offers single-stream recycling to residents at a cost of $4 per 60 gallons of material, according to the city’s website. That is up from $3 for single-stream recycling in 2013, city budgets show.
The cost for contracting services at the Durango Recycling Center has increased by more than $100,000 – from $72,019 in 2015 to a proposed $215,220 in 2020 – in the past five years, budgets show. City Operations Director Levi Lloyd did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment.
Morris Friedman, president of the recycling company that contracts with the city of Durango, said the monetary value for recycled commodities has sunk in recent years because of what he called “an artificial block on the movement of recyclables” promulgated by the world’s largest importer of recycled materials: China.
Processing plants in ChinaThe price companies receive for recycled commodities like plastic or paper has deflated in the past two years because of the “artificially imposed” reductions in market demand because of strict regulations on the kind and purity of recycled materials accepted in Chinese markets, Friedman said.
Companies in China – a manufacturing powerhouse – accepted more recyclables in the past two decades than most anywhere else in the world. The country, therefore, has the infrastructure – including paper and plastic processing plants – required to re-purpose mass quantities of recycled commodities.
But in 2017, the Ministry of Environmental Protection of the People’s Republic of China notified the World Trade Organization that it would ban the import of 24 kinds of solid waste, including unsorted waste paper – one of the largest U.S. recyclable export markets, Friedman said.
The notification to the WTO also says Chinese officials “found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials.”
“This polluted China’s environment seriously,” Chinese officials wrote in their notification to the WTO. “To protect China’s environmental interests and people’s health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted.”
The new standards require any recyclable material imported to China be 99.5% free of contaminates, meaning a load of cardboard, for example, must be 99.5% cardboard and nothing else.
Mark Thompson, owner of Phoenix Recycling, called the contamination requirements an “impossible standard” for post consumer recycling – packing tape on a cardboard box could be cause for material to be rejected from Chinese markets, he said.
What’s the impact?The Chinese standards reduced the demand for recycled commodities worldwide – a trade phenomenon that changed the fundamental business model for recycling businesses in the United States, Friedman said.
The cost to recycle materials in the past two years has outpaced the price companies can sell the commodities to manufacturers. The change in recycling import regulations in China forced recycling businesses around the world to either increase the cost of services or cut costs to stay afloat.
The prices Durango-based Phoenix Recycling gets in the United States for recycled commodities are abysmal, Thompson said. For example, in conversations with his broker, Thompson said he learned a ton of recycled cardboard sold for about $500 in China. His company gets $20 in Southwest Colorado for the same material.
But in the nearly two years since Chinese officials imposed import restrictions on recycled materials, private businesses have made strides to improve the recycling infrastructure in the United States and around the world. At least one bill has been introduced in the U.S. Congress proposing $500 million of public investment in states to improve recycling infrastructure.
As for Southwest Colorado, nothing will happen overnight, Thompson said.
U.S. companies found “loopholes” to Chinese regulations – the country won’t accept mixed paper but it will accept pulp, Friedman said. But many of the methods of getting around strict regulations require an extra step in production – a process the United States does not yet have the infrastructure to do, he said.
What role do residents play?Change is on the horizon, and a little help from residents in the meantime will go a long way, both Friedman and Thompson said. Chinese regulations have given companies worldwide confidence to raise the requirements for quality of recycled materials, they said.
Higher contamination standards force companies like Friedman Recycling and Phoenix Recycling, who sort and distribute single-stream recycling for municipalities and businesses, to spend more money sorting and cleaning materials to ensure companies will accept them.
Residents have a part to play in cleaning and sorting recycled products – careful sorting and cleaning can reduce the time and cost of sorting materials to recycling companies. It’s up to policymakers to set fee rates and decide what to do with a surplus or deficit in municipal recycling budgets – but governments are bound to the cost of their contracts with private businesses.
Friedman and Thompson said people who are over-ambitious and try to recycle things like hoses or plastic bags – which are not accepted in single-stream recycling – are causing contamination problems, which is driving up costs. The more non-recyclable materials in single-stream recycling, the more time and money they take to sort.
Although most materials can be recycled, the items recycling companies take depend on available markets, Friedman said. Styrofoam, for example, can be recycled – but there isn’t a major market for it, so many residential recycling companies do not accept it.
Businesses contracted to process recycled commodities also compete with the companies extracting raw materials, which can reduce the demand for recycled commodities, Thompson said. If a manufacturing company can get paper cheaper from a tree farm than in a recycled form, many will chose the tree farm.
It all comes down to economics, he said.
“If you’re Coca-Cola, do you want to mine ore on the side of a mountain or do you want to melt aluminum cans someone threw in the trash?” he said. “Economics favor recycling over time.”