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The Impact of China’s Waste Refusal Decision on Small-Town Recycling Plants

For many years, China grew to become the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials. The rise of single-stream recycling in the U.S., which saves Americans the headache of sorting their recyclables, passed the headache on to Chinese processors. As a result, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment cited environmental damage caused by “dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes” mixed in with solid waste that can be recycled into raw materials. The country has now placed strict standards for what it will and will not accept from other countries. In one fell swoop, China essentially changed the entire world market.

While big city recycling plants have lessened the impact of China’s decision for customers, rural and small-town recycling plants have not had the ability to follow suit. Many small towns and rural areas cannot shoulder the financial burden these new policies have created. In some places, recyclers have stockpiled certain materials in the hopes of locating a buyer. Many materials have declined in value as the market is flooded, with some even becoming worthless. Many big cities absorb the financial losses, fearing that if costs are passed on to customers, they will stop recycling. Unfortunately, small cities do not have this option. Rural recycling programs are already more expensive to manage than big city programs, as homes are further apart and greater distances must be covered. Recyclables must also be shipped to centers that can find markets for the products. As a result, a number of small recycling plants have scaled back or even stopped accepting certain items, such as plastics labeled with specific numbers or glass containers. Other local recycling centers have begun charging residents to dump their recycling.

Unfortunately, for many of these small towns, recycling centers have never made much money from a number of collected items, such as lower-quality plastics like numbers 3-7. These plastics are composed of a blend and do not break down easily. In addition, buyers typically want large quantities of these types of plastics, which rural and small town areas are unable to offer. The money spent to collect and ship these items no longer makes a profit for small town centers.

Towns in Erie County, PA, for example, have cut back on accepting glass, some plastics, and even some paper. County Environmental Sustainability Coordinator Brittany Prischak said she fears the new limits will make it much harder for recycling to survive in the state’s small-towns, despite the requirement under state law that communities with more than 10,000 residents have recycling programs. The costs are just too high. In Columbia County, NY, the annual recycling budget was exhausted over the summer. Now, the county will charge residents $50 for a permit to drop recyclables off at one of its recycling centers. Jolene Race, director of Columbia County Solid Waste Department, said the current program is unsustainable “unless you have a huge tax base where they just don’t care…smaller counties don’t and they have to pass (the cost) on.”