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Recycling crisis looms, disposal companies warn

Posted by on June 4, 2018
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Canada’s recycling has followed the same pattern for decades: China takes the country’s recycled electronics, plastic, paper, and other materials, and turns them into new goods that are then sold around the world. But the times are changing in China, causing a recycling bottleneck that threatens to change the recycling process for people across North America.

Contamination & Recycling Crisis

China’s New Regulations

China is changing the policies regarding what materials its recycling plants can accept. Some recycling plants are being closed down entirely. Others are having their processing methods improved, and the country is banning external contaminants like glass in its recycling plants.

The increased regulations on recycling plants are arguably a good thing. However, the result is that the items that qualify for recycling in North America are rapidly changing. Instead of your recycled trash on the curb being sent to a plant in China, it’ll be brought to a different place.

At the beginning of the recycling relationship between the United States and China three decades ago, China was in need of the raw materials collected from recycling. For multiple different reasons, China no longer needs the same types of raw materials. This leaves disposal companies and regulatory authorities scrambling to find a new route for the recycling process.

Recycling is China’s sixth-largest import type from the United States, but the country is taking steps to reduce its own environmental concerns. The World Trade Organization was notified in July that Beijing planned to ban importing twenty-four different varieties of recyclables and solid waste. These include unsorted paper, unsorted metals, and different plastic types that typically come from the United States. This ban on materials is a small piece of the broader Chinese program “Operation Green Fence,” which has an overall aim to reduce the importation of waste and contamination of recyclable materials throughout the country.

The Potential Crisis

According to disposal companies in Canada and the United States, the changes in China’s policies will have widespread environmental ramifications across North America. In particular, the West Coast has the potential to be affected. Because China no longer accepts certain types of items, these communities may have to redefine the types of materials that are recyclable.

For example, Newberg and Oregon City used to recycle cardboard, but they’ve long since been demolished or resold. There is very little recycling infrastructure in either the United States or Canada. North American countries have become highly dependent on China’s recycling programs as their way of reducing their own waste. Without China’s help, these countries will need to build their own recycling infrastructure. But doing so could take years, warn experts.

There are other opportunities for the exportation of recycled waste available both to the United States and Canada. But none of them can compare to the amount of recycled waste that China previously took. The bulk of recycled material was previously sent to China because of the country’s large number of manufacturing plants, which could find a way to recycle huge amounts of waste.

The History of Recycling Contamination

Part of China’s new regulations regarding recycling materials are due to what experts refer to as “wishful recycling.” Wishful recycling happens when people recycle non-recyclable materials just because they hope that said material can be used again instead of being transported to a landfill. Recycling non-recyclable materials leads to contamination, which is costly to correct at best and dangerous at worst.

Contamination levels reached their peak years ago, when recycling plants were dealing with between 20 and 25 percent of materials being non-recyclable. The recycling bales included grocery bags, plastic hoses, Styrofoam, and even engine blocks. Though efforts to educate the public about recyclable materials have been successful enough to reduce these levels, contamination is still too high. Paper and plastics still have so much contaminated material that China’s new regulations state they will not accept recycled imports unless the contamination level is less than 1%.

North American authorities aren’t confident they can reach those levels with their recycled waste. Simultaneously, United States companies that have licenses to export recyclable materials are facing increased restrictions. If a company is permitted to ship ten thousand tons each month, it’s possible that only four thousand of those tons will go to China.

That means that these plants will need to find a new place for 60% of their recycling materials to go. Unless a solution presents itself, companies will dramatically have to scale back their operations and the amount of waste processed. These are the plants that take the recycling collected by the collection companies, who drive the cars that pick up your bin on a weekly basis.

Recycling firms in North American countries have asked their governments to impose temporary measures allowing them to bring overflow recycling materials to landfills. Otherwise, they’ll run out of areas in which they can store the material. Because so little recycling processing is done in the United States and Canada, there’s nowhere to move the material.

Containers filled with recycling bales are sitting unloaded in China, due to the increased regulations. This has led to tension and frustration among the exportation companies. Originally, recycling was a stream of increased revenue for disposal firms. Now it costs more than $80 for each ton.

How Consumers Can Help

Consumers can help by reducing the number of contaminated items in their recycling bins each month. This includes:

  • Not recycling banned items such as pizza boxes and plastic bags
  • Rinsing out metal cans before placing them in the bin
  • Rinsing out plastic bottles
  • Claiming deposits on glass bottles rather than putting them in the recycling bin

For Canadians, citizens might want to enlist the help of a disposal company like RedBins. The professionals at this company can sort through your waste to make sure that only truly recyclable materials are put in the recycling bin. They can also take your waste to environmentally friendly disposal locations.

RedBins has its main office in Toronto and has been serving the Canadian population since 2004. All the bins are manufactured in Canada and are driveway safe. For information about how RedBins disposal professionals can help you with your recycling, give the company a call at 416-733-2467.