Chinese regulations impact American recycling


Thora Pearson

“The average American should expect the cost of recycling collection to go up,” Biderman said. “It’s going to go up more on the coast than in the middle of the country, but it’s going to go up in both places.”

Maddie Meyers, web managing editor

Your shirt. Your shoes. Your phone. Chances are, all of these items were made in China. America even relies on China for its recycling needs. But that is about to change.

According to David Biderman, Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) executive director, America exports about one third of its recycling, and most of that goes to China because America does not have the domestic capacity for it. China also wants the scrap metal and materials to feed its manufacturing systems. Now China is putting stricter restrictions on recycling in place, which may impact the availability and cost of curbside recycling in America, including Kirkwood.

“China was not happy being a dumping ground for foreign waste,” Biderman said. “They want to develop their own domestic recycling system where they generate paper, plastic and metal to feed their needs, and do not rely on the United States or other foreign countries.”

Biderman said at the beginning of this year, China banned the import of mixed paper and plastics from all countries, not just America. He said China is allowing some other items, but they are subject to a very important restriction.

“The material has to be no more contaminated than 0.5 percent,” Biderman said. “What I mean by contaminated is that if there is a bale filled of cardboard, …there can’t be a lot of food in the cardboard. There can’t be plastic in the cardboard such that more than 0.5 percent of the weight of that cardboard is something other than cardboard.”

According to Biderman, American tariffs on Chinese exports is the most recent factor affecting stronger restrictions on recycling, which just happened Aug. 23. He said China is retaliating by imposing a 25 percent tariff on items coming out of America, including small scrap and recyclables. These restrictions will affect people living on the coasts more than people living in the Midwest because the Midwest has more space for waste and recyclables than the coasts, which will have to ship their recyclables somewhere else.

“The average American should expect the cost of recycling collection to go up,” Biderman said. “It’s going to go up more on the coast than in the middle of the country, but it’s going to go up in both places.”

Angela Gehlert, Missouri Recycling Association executive director, believes these new restrictions are going to greatly impact local recycling programs. She said there needs to be an end market for the materials otherwise they will stack up in a landfill.

“We are really going to have to work with our local and regional processors about what materials [can be recycled] and do a better job on a clean recycling stream,” Gehlert said. “People are going to have to stop the wishful recycling where they may not be sure if an item can be recycled or not. When in doubt, don’t put those items in.”

China was not happy being a dumping ground for foreign waste.”

— Biderman

Biderman said people need to be more thoughtful when recycling. He said people recycle hoses and string lights, which are not recyclable in curbside recycling and get tangled up in the recycling facilities. The facilities have to shut down when people recycle plastic bags because the workers have to pull the pieces of plastic off the equipment.

“What we need to do in the United States is invest more in domestic recycling infrastructure so we can handle this material here,” Biderman said. “This creates jobs and reduces the amount of emissions associated with shipping stuff all over the world.”

Bill Bensing, Kirkwood public services director, hopes that people will become more educated on what can actually be recycled. This will decrease the contamination rate and allow recycling back into the international market.

“[People] can make recycling better by going back to the basics,” Bensing said. “When they recycle, [they should] make sure things are emptied, clean and dry because that’s where some of the contamination comes from, bottles that still have liquid in them and food containers that still have food in them.”

According to Biderman, if facilities stop processing recyclables, some facilities might have to lay off workers. But he said some other facilities are trying to clean up the recycling in their facility so they are hiring more people.

“They hire people known as pickers because they pick the bad stuff off the conveyor belt,” Biderman said. “So we’ve seen it increase in many facilities where [companies] are hiring more people to try and satisfy China’s stricter standards.”

Biderman and Gehlert both believe it is up to this generation of teenagers to help influence and educate their parents about recycling. Biderman said young people are often more motivated to help the environment and to make a difference.

“We live in a very fast-paced, throw-away society and the millions of water bottles has an environmental impact,” Gehlert said. “This generation, when they decide to do something, they can really get a movement going.”