Since January 1st 2018, China implemented the Chinese Green Sword which governs what recyclables China is still buying. These much stricter rules came with a one year warning but still, most US Recycling Centers (or Material Recovery Facility -MRF) did not really change their ways in anticipation of these guidelines.
January 2018 came and to the big surprise of many material recovery facilities, Chinese buyers swooped upon them, armed with red spray cans, walking the storage facilities and getting a work out putting large red Xs onto bales to mark them as rejected.
It created a huge problem because of a sudden revenue drop up to 60 to 70% for the facilities in addition to the problem of now making a painful choice. What to do with the rejected recyclables? Trash the material, or to slow the sorting line and run it through again? Not only did the re-sorting costs more money, the value of the material was severely depressed by up to 56%, leaving many smaller facilities only the option to close their doors and to default on their contractual obligations with the communities they served.
China mandates now that recyclables have to be 98% contamination free. If buyers just see 3 or 4 items on the outside that are not correct, they will reject that bale. Buyers also put out a list of materials that customarily people would identify as recyclable such as the blue fruit trays. These should not go into paper anymore, but rather into composting.
Here are some things that China has banned as part of paper recycling
- compostable pulp trays such school lunch trays and fruit trays
- cardboard with excessive plastic tape on it
- mixed paper with cardboard
And here are some of the household recyclables that China has banned
- all #3 to #7 plastics
Westchester County’s MRF is working diligently with these new parameters and because it is a dual stream facility and requires its residents to separate paper from commingled in the houses, the sorted bales are much cleaner and in 2018 , Westchester was able to actually pass on ALL of their recyclables to industry. Revenue is lower by 23% but that is much better than the nations average of a 56% reduction.
This Chinese Sword is hopefully a blessing in disguise because it will put pressure on local industry to find ways to keep recycling locally, to find innovative new outlets for sorted materials and to grow solutions to make materials circular.
There are already many small scale solutions such as textiles made into insulation, milk cartons into insulation, plastics into streets, plastics into building materials, plastics into liquefied fuel, oysters shells into coral reefs, bread ends into beer, plastic bags into insulation and matting, paper into wall coverings. The possibilities are endless but these kind of solutions can only bubble up to the top, when garbage is not cheap anymore.