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The National Recycling Coalition, a non-profit organization focused on promoting and enhancing recycling in the United States, explains recycled materials and trash should look very different from each other, but for years they have been converging in the U.S.
China once accepted 30 to 40 percent of U.S. paper, plastic and metal recyclables — with recyclable materials from here being the sixth-largest import to the Chinese economy, according to Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, a non-profit corporation with a mission to expand and develop markets for recycled materials headquartered at Penn State Harrisburg.
According to Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, China made waves in the U.S. recycling industry throughout 2018, by enforcing its National Sword policy — an ongoing initiative of the Chinese Government to restrict importation of contaminated recycled materials into China. Plastics, one of the largest contributors to residential recycling, is limited by the Chinese Government at 0.5% contamination rate.
Jerry Powell, executive editor for industry trade publication Recycling Resources Inc., said Chinese policy on recycling has affected industry sectors in different ways. “China banned certain plastics, what we’d call numbers 3 through 7, but that type of plastic only represents about 5 percent of total recycled plastics,” Powell said. “The contamination policy, also known as a sorting standard, has had a much larger effect.” “The sorting standards are so tight that for many processors, it’s essentially a ban,” Powell said. “Sorting standards are much higher, and so costs are much higher,” Powell said. “The net effect is that there is an increased effort by Chinese as well as North American processors to wash and ship clean plastic to China, rather than just taking bales of plastic from the curbs of places like Western Pennsylvania.”
For Justin Stockdale, regional director of the Pennsylvania Resources Council, the gradual shift toward single-stream recycling has played a large role in where the U.S. finds itself. “It’s not really just about the U.S. and China,” Stockdale said. “It’s more about how First World economies got used to sending dirtier and dirtier materials to Third World and Asian markets. Single-stream recycling attracts contamination by its very nature.”
When recycling began gaining traction nationally, consumers were used to cleaning and separating recyclables by commodity type: plastic, glass, paper, aluminum, etc. “When we switched to single-stream, recycling became this sort of feel-good, ridiculous thing that eventually reached the point where recycling companies told people, ‘Well, if you’re not sure, just throw it in the bin and someone else will take care of it.’”
Stockdale likened single-stream recycling to scrambling an egg. “Single-stream recycling facilities are like trying to unscramble an egg, which no one has so far figured out how to do,” he said. “You can never get things 100 percent clean in a single-stream plant, and therein lies the root of the problem.”
Waste Management announced they will be focusing on contamination and trying to eliminate it at the curb. Heavily contaminated material won’t be accepted as recycling.
The national Recycling Coalition urges residential customers to only recycle the items on their local recyclables list. It is far less likely that loads would be rejected by the end user if material quality is collected starting with the consumer. Adding “When in Doubt, Throw it Out (in the Trash)!”