China says your recyclables don’t measure up

With processors running out of space, some items shipped to landfills

IT’S NOT APPARENT AT THE CURB yet, but recycling programs across Massachusetts are taking a big hit right now because of a new Chinese policy limiting the amount of contaminants the country will accept in shipments of waste paper and some other scrap materials.

The new level, set at a half of a percent for waste paper and many other items, is well below the 3 to 5 percent that has become the target for most processors of recycled materials in this country.

“It’s almost impossible for us,” said Ben Harvey, the president of E.L. Harvey & Sons in Westborough. “That’s lower than Ivory soap, which is 99 percent pure.”

Since China is the biggest importer of recycled materials in the world, accounting for half the market, the contamination policy has turned the business of recyclables upside down. Companies that process recycled items are scrambling to find new markets or stockpiling materials in the hope that China will eventually relent and relax its standards.

The policy formally took effect January 1, but most Chinese importers stopped placing orders for recycled materials in October because they didn’t want to get stuck with boatloads of materials they couldn’t use.

Greg Cooper, director of business compliance and recycling at the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the sale of recycled materials is a commodities market, prone to dramatic swings up and down in prices based on supply and demand. With Chinese imports of some recycled materials way down, Cooper said, the supply of recycled materials is about the same but the demand has fallen way off.

Cooper said other countries, including Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and South Korea, are expanding their imports, but right now supply still far exceeds demand. Many companies that process recycled materials in Massachusetts are having difficulty selling their product and running out of space to store it.

The situation became so dire at some facilities in late December that state environmental officials granted them a waiver from waste bans so they could start disposing of items in landfills and incinerators. Cooper said he doesn’t have complete information yet on how much was buried or burned, but he estimated it was about 100 to 200 tons a day, or about 5 percent of the total, over a two-week period.

So far, municipalities and homeowners have seen little impact from the new Chinese policy. But that will start to change if China’s policy remains in place for several more months and recycling contracts start coming up for renewal. Industry officials say they expect the cost of disposing of recycled materials to rise, possibly dramatically.

Already, the value of some types of recycled materials has plummeted on world markets. Kevin Roche, the chief executive of ecomaine, which handles recycling and trash disposal for a number of Maine municipalities, said waste paper sold for an average of $101 a ton in fiscal 2016 and $51 a ton in fiscal 2017, which ended in July 2017. Right now, Roche says, he is having trouble getting any money for waste paper and sometimes he is having to pay firms to take it.

Most state and municipal officials seem content to wait and see what happens with China over the next few months. Officials said they want homeowners to do a better job of keeping contaminants out of their recycling containers and processors need to do a better job of sorting out contaminants as items are prepared for shipment to companies that use the material to make new products.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

But there seems little inclination to make major changes in the way recycled materials are handled. Single-stream recycling, where a resident puts all recyclables in one bin, sometimes contributes to the problem of contamination. Pay-as-you-throw programs, which charge residents for the trash they put out at the curb, also incentivize people to throw as much as possible in the recycling bin.

Phil Goddard, president of the southern New England chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America, is taking a cautious approach on the new China policy. “The best strategies for municipal officials right now include not making any dramatic changes in what is collected to avoid sending mixed messages to residents, focusing on educating the public to keep the quality of the recyclables high, and reviewing all contracts with vendors to understand all terms and conditions clearly and to review your budget line item for solid waste management for possible financial impacts now and in fiscal year 2019,” he said in a statement.

Roche is also hopeful the market will rebound. “The market can’t get any worse,” he said. “There’s only one direction it can go or the market’s going to fall apart.”