Recycling: A global problem becomes a local one

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Capped trash: It was recently announced that the Rapp Road landfill, in Albany, would remain open until 2026. The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 75 percent of the United States’ waste stream can be recycled or composted, but only 34.7 percent is.

ALBANY COUNTY — After stunning industrial and commercial growth over the last four decades in China, the Communist country, which had taken and used much of the world’s refuse, has implemented policies to clean up its environment.

Five years ago, China required better-sorted, less-contaminated recyclables and this year stopped taking many kinds of waste, including mixed papers, certain plastics, scrap metal, and chemical waste. At the same time, China has launched its own recycling program to meet its needs.

Some places in the United States have since seen skyrocketing prices for disposing of recyclables and, in some cases, have started burning them or putting them in landfills — both detrimental to the environment.

Some states, like Vermont and California, had put laws in place in advance that has reduced their waste.

In 2017, China exported to the United States $505 million worth of goods and services; the United States, in return, exported to China $130 million in goods and services, of which $5.65 billion was waste and scrap.

That $375 million deficit is where the scrap-and-waste trade makes its money.

China has, for decades, been the world’s leading importer of scrap and waste, taking in as much as half of the planet’s trash, with a boundless appetite for raw material to fuel a country whose economy doubles in size every eight years.

So, container ships that leave China overflowing with computers, electronics, furniture, and apparel, often make the return trip with room to spare. As a result, shipping companies offer major discounts on trips back to China.

The arrangement has been an excellent one for the United States recycling industry and its customers. China was paying top dollar for scrap; and municipalities, counties, and states were improving their environment, and, maybe, making a few bucks doing it.

And it worked, so long as commodity prices stayed indefinitely at record highs, which they did not, and, China continued to grow, build, and industrialize without regard for its natural resources, which it has, albeit more slowly now.

Last year, China announced it would no longer take in the rest of the planet’s trash because too much of it had been contaminated. This sent prices skyrocketing and towns, cities, counties, and states were left looking for options.

The cost of recycling in the Capital Region increased by 1200 percent at one point this year. In May, the town of New Scotland had to amend its contract with its waste hauler when the cost of disposing of recyclables went from $10 per ton to $40 per ton.

In August, Robert Wright, of Wright Disposal, the town’s hauler, was before the town board again asking for an amended contract because it now cost $80 per ton to dispose of recycling. (See related story.)


Recycling contamination happens when non-recyclables are mixed in with recyclables, turning it into nothing more than trash.

Even the best-intended recycling can go awry. (See related story.)

“Broken glass and food or liquid residues can ruin paper bales,” according to Green America, a not-for-profit. “Likewise, the wrong types of plastic and food/liquid residues can spoil plastic bales. These items then become unrecyclable and likely to end up in landfills or incinerators, or they may be sold to countries with lower contamination standards.”

Contaminated recycling is what triggered China’s policies, and the rise in contamination has coincided with the rise of single-stream recycling.

Single-stream recycling allows people to place all of their recyclables — paper, glass, cardboard, aluminum, and plastics — into one bin that is taken to a material-recovery facility, to be sorted by hand and machine.

About two-thirds of material-recovery facilities in the United States, in 2016, were single-stream, according to Government Advisory Associates, a solid-waste and environmental consulting firm; 10 years earlier, it was 27 percent.

Single-stream was created by the waste-management industry to reduce its costs; labor, workers’ compensation, and specialized trucks carry significant costs for the industry. Single-stream collection increased efficiencies by collecting more material with less labor, and reduced costs by automating collection, using larger bins, and eliminating manual curbside sorting.

Single-stream recycling, according to The Atlantic Magazine, has made recycling easier, which has increased household recycling rates.

However, “what single-stream wins in volume,” according to National Public Radio, “it sacrifices in quality.” As much as a quarter of single-stream recycling ends up in landfills.

It was that lack of quality that pushed China, in 2013, to enforce Operation Green Fence.

In 2000, the United States exported about $744 million worth of waste and scrap to China, according to United State International Trade Commission; by 2008, exports had increased tenfold, to $7.56 billion.

By 2011, the United States was exporting $11.5 billion worth of trash to China, making it the fifth largest export that year, behind agriculture at $14.7 billion; computers and electronic products, $13.7 billion; chemicals, $13.6 billion; and transportation equipment at $13.2 billion.

The abundance of contaminated waste and scrap that was making its way into the country led China to crack down in 2013.

The 10-month initiative set a limit of 1.5 percent of allowable contaminant in each bale of imported recyclables.

In the first year of Operation Green Fence, nearly 70 percent of shipping containers packed with recycling bound for China were subjected to thorough inspections. Shippers caught bringing in substandard material could have their licenses revoked, and recyclers faced the possibility of having to pay for a trip home for a rejected pile of trash.

The initiative soon had its intended effect: Cleaner trash came into China. By 2017, the United States was sending $5.65 billion worth of waste and scrap to China.

Since 1980, China has been the world’s largest importer of recycled paper and plastics.

In 1979, the Communist country had implemented free-market reforms and opened up to foreign trade. What followed was “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history,” according to the World Bank.

The unprecedented growth has enabled China to double the size of its economy every eight years, since 1979, and raise 800 million people out of poverty.

China has had an insatiable appetite for material: by one estimate, according to the Washington Post, half of its infrastructure has been built since 2000; in 2016 and 2017, the country spent about $1.7 trillion on infrastructure.

Journalist Adam Minter asserts that recyclables are an often overlooked factor that helped transform China into a manufacturing powerhouse.

“During the 1980s and ’90s, Chinese manufacturers had few options for raw materials. State-owned natural-resource monopolies supplied state-owned manufacturers, not small businesses,” according to Minter. “So in the mid-1980s, entrepreneurs began importing the rich world’s unwanted recycling and selling it at a discount.”

In 1978, less than 20 percent of China’s population lived in cities; by 2020, it’s expected to be 60 percent. To house all those people, the country has spent billions to build, and build, to the point where hundreds of cities are completely devoid of humans. Between 2011 and 2013, China used more cement than the United States did during the entire 20th Century.

But four decades of economic dynamism has taken its toll on China’s land, air, and water. In 2017, the country ramped up and expanded an existing campaign to clean up the environment; in August of that year, more than two dozen cities were ordered to reduce air pollution by 15 percent — by that winter. Additionally, China has closed tens-of-thousands of factories that contributed pollution and has become a proponent of renewable energy.

On Jan. 1, China began enforcing its National Sword Policy, which banned 24 types of solid waste, including certain plastics and mixed papers, as well as setting tougher standards for the contamination levels of recyclables it will accept. In April, the country announced a ban on an additional 32 products, among them: scrap metal, chemical waste, and ethylene polymer waste.

China announced its own ambitious recycling program in 2017 with a goal of increasing recycled domestic solid waste from 246 million metric tons in 2015, to 350 million tons by 2020. In the United States, in 2015, approximately 68 million tons were recycled and 23 million tons were composted.

The numbers

According to the most recent data available from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, in 2015, the United States generated 262 million tons of municipal solid waste: approximately 68 million tons were recycled and 23 million tons were composted; 33 million tons were used to create energy, most likely incinerated; and 137 million tons were sent to landfills.

With a recycling and composting rate of 34.7 percent, the U.S. is ranked the 25th best recycling country in the world — and the fifth most wasteful on a per-person basis, according to a European Environmental Bureau-funded report. Germany was rated the best recycler; Singapore, the most wasteful. (See related story.)

Sixty-seven percent of the 68 million tons recycled, in the United States in 2015 was paper or paperboard; 12 percent was metal; rubber, leather, and textiles made about 6 percent; plastics about 4.6 percent; glass, 4.5 percent; and wood made up about 4 percent of the United States recycling, in 2015.

Yard trimmings made up 91 percent of the 23 million tons that were composted; food made up the other 9 percent.

The EPA estimates that 75 percent of the U.S. waste stream can be recycled or composted, but only 34.7 percent is.

The problem

The problem is a disproportionate one, dramatically affecting some states while it’s barely blip to others.

Waste Dive, an online clearinghouse for industry news, in November 2017, began tracking what China’s new import policies mean for all 50 states.

It found that the effects of China’s new policies were:

— Heavy in 13 states, meaning that recycling programs had been cut back or recyclable material is being disposed of;

— Noticeable in 28 states, meaning that recycling has become more difficult, and cuts are being considered to local programs; and

— Minimal in nine states, meaning that there were no major issues other than normal market fluctuations.

China’s policies were deemed to have had a heavy effect on New York State.

The effects are dramatic locally. For example, at an Aug. 8 New Scotland Town Board meeting, Jerry Wright, the president of Robert Wright Disposal, which is employed by the town to haul residents’ recyclables and garbage, explained the problems his company had been facing.

In May, the board had approved an addendum to the town’s contract with Wright Disposal for collection to pay Wright an additional $15,586 for the third year of a five-year contract, after the cost of disposing of recyclables went from $10 per ton to $40 per ton. The contract with Wright was still so favorable to the town that, in return for the one-time payment of $15,586 and as a show of good faith, both sides agreed to add a sixth year to the five-year contract.

Town Supervisor Douglas LaGrange explained that, when recycling went from $10 per ton to $40 per ton, Wright was able absorb an additional $10 per ton. So, had costs gone from $10 per ton to $20 per ton, no addendum would have been necessary. With the May addendum, the town is on the hook for $30 of the $40 per ton, with $10 per ton is coming off of Wright’s end.

In an August letter to the board, Wright estimated that recycling costs would settle at $80 per ton, and asked that the town to pay an an additional $40 per ton, leaving the town to pay $70 of the $80.

LaGrange said that the additional cost adds only about $19 per pickup per year.

At the Aug. 8 meeting, Wright told the board, when he bid the original contract, the cost of recycling was $10 a ton; according to Wright, his company’s bid was $140,000 lower than the nearest competitor.

“That rate had been very constant,” he said. It had been the same rate “for six or seven years prior to the bid,” he said.

Wright also said that, when single-stream recycling — the process where all recyclables, including newspaper, cardboard, plastic, and aluminum, are  placed in a single bin for recycling — first started over 10 years ago, disposal was free.

“So over a 10-year period, we hadn’t seen much of a change in recycling costs; $10 a ton is a pretty minimal amount as compared to disposal of garbage, which is between $50 and $70 a ton, depending on where you go and what you have,” he said. New Scotland pays $52 a ton to dispose of its garbage, according to Wright.

“The Chinese market — I don’t know if you've been reading newspaper — has basically stopped accepting recyclables. They were the largest user of post-consumer mixed paper, cardboard, and metal, pretty much everything. They had a huge appetite for recyclables,” Wright said. “They’re trying to use more virgin materials, and are also trying to clean up their own economy and their own processes, and trying to recycle some of their own materials.”

New York State, according to Wright, has “made it very clear” it won’t allow companies to dump their recycling in landfills, but added that it may issue waivers. “Anything that’s environmentally sound costs money,” Wright said. “So recycling — just like everything else, like emission-free cars — costs money and people are finally realizing that it’s not a free service.”

Wright, a New Scotland resident, said that Wright Disposal has been in business since 1949, and is the largest privately-owned waste-removal company in the Capital Region, serving 15,000 homes per week; approximately 1,100 in New Scotland, and about 2,500 in Voorheesville.

One of Wright’s major problems, he said, is that there is only one materials-recovery facility in the Capital Region, run by County Waste, which, according to Wright, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Waste Connections, the third largest waste hauling company in the world. (See related story.)

On Saturday, June 16, Wright said that he received a call from the district manager of County Waste, who told him that, effective June 18, the rate for recycling disposal was increasing from $40 per ton to $120 a ton. “So essentially they gave us a 300-percent increase with a half-a-working day’s notice,” he said.

“We just felt that maybe something was wrong here,” Wright said. “We did more research; we read more stuff, and it seemed like $120 a ton was awfully high — even knowing all that was going on with the export markets.”

Wright found a facility in Pownal, Vermont — an 85 mile round trip from New Scotland — that was charging $70 a ton, “considerably less than the county waste charge.” Immediately, he said, his company moved about 30 to 40 percent of its recycling to the Vermont facility. With transportation costs included, it was costing Wright about $100 a ton to use the facility in Pownal.

After making the move, Wright informed County Waste that he planned to make more changes to his materials collection. “I’m going to move all my material to Tam Waste Management Incorporated in Pownal, Vermont,” he told County Waste. “Well, lo and behold, maybe a little competition helped; they agreed for the month of August to change their rate to $80 per ton.”

Counties and cities across New York have had to increase fees or cut service.

Fort Edward, in Washington County, notified its residents, in June, that the town would halt its curbside recycling service, The Post-Star reported. What many residents did not know is that, since January, the town had been picking up the recycling and bringing it to a Hudson Falls trash plant to be burned.

The city of Rensselaer, the Times Union recently reported, planned to increase its garbage fee by 27 percent because, until July, recycling had been free.

The fee that Columbia County pays to its recycling vendor has increased from $6,000 a month to $14,000 a month, Hudson Valley 360 reports.

China’s new policy has hit Western states, the most-likely customers of its recycling services, especially hard.

In May, the New York Times reported, parts of Idaho, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii, no longer accepted certain items for recycling; rather, customers were told to throw the items in the trash.

“In recent months, in fact, thousands of tons of material left curbside for recycling in dozens of American cities and towns — including several in Oregon — have gone to landfills,” the Times reported.

Northwest Public Broadcasting reported, in June, that, in the previous year, “more than 10,000 tons of Oregon’s recycling had been dumped in landfills because there was nowhere else for it to go.” Portland, the state’s largest city, approved an emergency 10-percent increase in pickup fees to deal with the problem.

Douglas County, about 200 miles south of Portland, in June, announced it would be “suspending recycling efforts,” and would no longer accept newspaper, plastic bottles and containers, paper, glass, or cardboard.

“Until the recycling market can recover or possibly return, we ask that you dispose of the above mentioned items with your other household waste, with your local waste disposal company, or at the landfill or transfer station as refuse,” Douglas County said in a statement.

The city of Sacramento announced, in July, that it would no longer allow certain plastics in its recycling bins. Also banned are shredded paper and plastic foam.

Most plastic items are labeled with a number, 1 through 7, that denotes the type of plastic. Now, in Sacramento, only plastics 1 through 3 are allowed.

Last year, before China’s policy was even in place, the Sacramento Bee reported that, in the prior three years, 800 recycling centers in California had closed, victims of a recovering economy.

“The recovering economy is partly to blame,” the Bee reported. “As consumption and construction rose, Californians produced more waste. But incentives for recycling have lessened as oil prices dropped to less than half of what they were a couple of years ago. That meant it became less expensive to create new products than use recycled bottles and cans.”

Hooksett, New Hampshire, in June, canceled its curbside recycling for budget reasons, choosing instead to incinerate those items.

Still, across much of the United States, recycling continues as usual. With countries like India, Vietnam, and Indonesia picking up the slack caused by China’s new policies.


New York, in 2017, marked the 25th anniversary of its statewide adoption of local recycling laws. Since 1992, according to the state, more than 320 million tons of recyclable materials had been diverted from landfills. Because of the Returnable Container Act, or “Bottle Bill,” 4.5 billion plastic, glass, and aluminum beverage containers, totaling over 300,000 tons, have been recycled.

In 2009, the state instituted the Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling Act, which required certain stores to collect certain single-use plastic bags for recycling; in March 2015, the law was expanded to include the collection and recycling of certain film plastics.

In January, New York State issued a report on single-use plastic bags, problematic and “ubiquitous sight on the landscape.” In April, Governor Cuomo introduced a single-use plastic-bag ban; it went nowhere.

Thirteen municipalities, according to the report, in New York State have plastic bag laws; 10 have enacted bans: Southampton Village, Southampton Town, Rye, Patchogue Village, New Paltz Village, Village of Mamaroneck, Larchmont, Hastings-on-Hudson, Village of East Hampton, and Town of East Hampton; two have enacted a 5-cent fee: Suffolk County and Long Beach; and one is a hybrid: New Castle.

There could have been 14; but, in February 2017, the day before a New York City 5-cent fee on single-use bags was supposed to go into effect, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill to kill the fee, saying a statewide task force was the best way to come up with a plan to manage plastic bags.

New Yorkers, according to the report, use an estimated 23 billion plastic bags each year; New York City spends about $12.5 million annually to handle 73,000 tons of plastic bags.

Prior to California’s bag ban, in 2016, San Diego consumed 500 million single-use plastic bags each year, the state report says; about 95 percent ended up in landfills, and cost $25 million per year to manage.

Before California instituted its statewide plastic-bag ban, San José spent $1 million a year to fix recycling facility machinery jams caused by plastic bags, according to the state report.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the report says, reached out to three recyclable-recovery facilities and found that plastic-bag contamination adds an additional $300,000 to $1 million in costs.

The study proposes eight options to tackle the single-use plastic bag problem in New York State:

— Strengthen and enforce the existing 2009 plastic-bag law;

— Require manufacturers to pay for recycling;

— Institute a fee on single-use plastic bags;

— Institute a fee per transaction rather than one for individual bags;

— Institute a fee on plastic and paper bags;

— Ban single-use plastic bags;

— Ban single-use plastic bags while instituting a fee on allowable alternatives; or

— Do nothing.

At the state level

Vermont, in 2012, passed a Universal Recycling Law, which says that, by 2020, all recyclable and compostable materials will be banned from landfills. The state also has a goal of reducing landfill waste by 25 percent by 2020.

The law states:

— Recycling bins must be provided everywhere there are trash bins;

— Businesses and institutions must compost if a facility is within 20 miles of them; and

— Transfer stations and drop-off facilities must accept recycling, yard debris, and food scraps.

The 2012 law also instituted unit-based pricing, or “pay-as-you-throw,” where residents pay based on the amount of trash they discard.

Pay-as-you-throw “has been a particularly powerful incentive,” according to a study funded by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a liberal not-for-profit organization. “Just six months after the town of Vernon, Vermont adopted its program, it disposed of 58 percent less garbage on average per week. Vernon expects the program will save the town $140,000 per year.”

In 2015, The Atlantic reported that Worcester, Massachusetts, had seen a 53-percent drop in waste since 1993, when it started a pay-as-you-throw program. Just last week, the Bay State allocated $2.6 million for municipality recycling education.

Vermont’s 2012 law, according to the report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, has had unexpected benefits.

“Because large producers of organic waste, like grocery stores and schools, are required to divert their organics to composting facilities, many are pulling food off the shelves a bit earlier and donating it instead,” the report says. “The Vermont Foodbank reported that food donations increased 25-30 percent in 2015 and another 40 percent in 2016. The quality of food donations has also dramatically improved to include far more fresh foods, like fruits, vegetables and meat.”


But no state comes close to the Golden State when it comes to being green.

The California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 required that municipalities reduce, reuse, and recycle solid waste “to the maximum extent feasible” before sending it to a landfill or to be incinerated, and also mandated that, by the year 2000, half of waste be diverted from landfills. It took until 2005 to meet the mandate.

In 2011, the state set a goal of 75-percent diversion by 2020, but has yet to come close to that number.

In order to meet that goal, the state has adopted a number of laws.

In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Mandatory Commercial Organics Recycling program, which requires businesses and multi-family properties with five units or more to compost or anaerobically digest their food, landscape, and nonhazardous wood waste, as well as their food-soiled paper.

In 2015, California adopted four laws to further develop its recycling, composting, and waste reduction.

California estimates that 80 million tons of solid waste will be generated in 2020; to reach that 75-percent goal, an additional 23 million tons would need to be recycled, reduced, or composted in 2020 — which may prove difficult.

In 2016, the state’s diversion rate was 61 percent; the previous seven years averaged 65 percent.

A bill, introduced in March, would require the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery to evaluate each municipality’s good-faith effort to meet the diversion requirement — with China’s impact in mind.

The crown jewel: San Francisco

In 2002, San Francisco set a goal of 75-percent diversion by 2010, which it has since been achieved. In 2003, the city set 2020 as its goal for zero waste.

This progress, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group study, is due to a number requirements and programs:

In 2007, San Francisco banned plastic bags;

In 2009, an ordinance was passed that required the entire city to separate recyclables, organics, and trash;

— The city instituted a pay-as-you-throw program;

— Residents pay twice as much for garbage as they do for recycling and composting services;

— Packaging and food-service goods sold in San Francisco must be recyclable or compostable;

— All checkout bags cost 10 cents and must be reusable, recyclable, or compostable;

— Construction and demolition projects must use city-registered haulers and processors;

— Products regularly purchased by the city must have recycled content; and

— Public-works projects must use recycled-content construction materials.

In 2012, Mayor Ed Lee announced that the city had reached an 80-percent diversion rate — and that is where, more or less, it’s been ever since.

But the 80-percent diversion rate has been questioned by some.

Samantha MacBride, an assistant professor at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs in New York, has calculated that the city’s rate is closer to 60 percent.

The city’s diversion rate, according to MacBride, is a “unique reflection of what the San Francisco Department of Environment counts, and how it calculates and publicizes what it counts.”

The rate is so high because the city includes large quantities of very heavy construction materials, according to MacBride. “Other cities and countries don’t compile their municipal solid waste (MSW) diversion statistics this way.”

Diversion-rate debate aside, San Francisco has dramatically reduced the amount of waste going into landfills — and so it has suffered less due to China’s policies.

Because of the its recycling infrastructure, San Francisco is able to continue exporting recyclables, Wired Magazine reports. Recology, the city’s exclusive waste hauler, was able to hire more sorters and slow down the recycling process in order to lower contamination levels so that China would accept it.

Markets for recycling have not evaporated, but there is trouble already.

Countries in Southeast Asia looked to fill the vacuum left by China.

At the end of last year, as shipments to China ebbed, imports of plastic scrap to Malaysia increased to 450,000 or 500,000 tons, in 2017, up from 288,000 tons in 2016; Vietnam’s imports increased by 62 percent in 2017; in Thailand, imports increased by 117 percent; and Indonesia saw an increase of 65 percent.

However, earlier this month, Thailand announced it would stop accepting 400 types of electronic waste, after it had accepted massive amounts of it from the United States, the European Union, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan.

In July, Vietnam, in an effort to crack down on illegal shipments and increased pollution near its processing facilities, announced it would no longer issue new licenses to import scrap. Malaysia revoked 114 import permits.

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