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Stricter Chinese Recycling Rules Make It Harder to Dispose of Waste in NJ

China will no longer accept some materials and wants others to be much cleaner. As a result, recycling has become more complicated and more expensive for communities across New Jersey

Recycling waste in China
Credit: Creative Commons
A child sits atop unusable recycled materials in China.

Recycling is getting a lot more complicated, a trend that is spiking costs and leaving reams of paper, plastics and other recyclables to pile up in warehouses, or worse, in landfills.

It is a problem occurring not only in New Jersey, but across the nation as China, the biggest market for recyclables in the past, has essentially stopped accepting raw materials from foreign recycling businesses. The new policies this spring have disrupted a global market and left some communities with the unhappy prospect of paying to get rid of recyclables instead of selling the waste.

It is likely to get worse before it gets better, too, industry experts say. That means residents must adapt to tougher sorting policies when they attempt to dispose of plastics, paper, and other waste, often in the same recycling bin. That practice, dubbed “single-stream recycling,’’ is now being phased out in some cases. Instead, residents are being ordered to separate paper from cardboard, glass from plastic, food waste from other recyclables, and so on.

Millburn, Cranford, Westfield make changes

The change has led communities to educate the public to be more careful in what they throw in the recycling bin. Millburn, for instance, no longer accepts plastic bags in its curbside recycling. In Cranford, residents must rinse out containers and clean out any food waste. Westfield no longer accepts shredded paper.

“It is going to be two years of not so good times,’’ predicted Ann Moore, recycling coordinator for Burlington County. “Long-term, the outlook is good, but in the short term, it is going to be tough.’’

Like many other states, New Jersey has a big business in recycling; it employs more than 17,000 people here and generates $548 million in tax revenue, according to a study done by the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries.

In Burlington, the county has seen its costs increase by 15 to 20 percent this year as it had to increase the number of employees from 24 to 32 to separate unwanted material from recyclables to meet tougher standards, Moore said.

Those costs have risen even though Burlington has been able to find markets for its recyclables, including plastics — probably the material most affected by the change in China’s policies, Moore said.

US exports massive amounts of scrap to China

Recyling in China
Credit: Creative Commons
Women sort plastics for recycling in Guangzhou, China.

In the past, the global recycling market revolved around China, according to Mark Carpenter, senior director of communications for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington, D.C. Last July, China announced new policies to ban some materials and to require what recyclables it accepted to be much cleaner.

For the U.S., which last year exported $5.6 billion worth of scrap commodities to China, the new policies quickly hit home. “China basically changed the market overnight,’’ Carpenter said.

“What it has done is stopped recycling in its tracks,’’ said Frank Brill, a lobbyist in Trenton who represents recyclers. “Recyclers are stockpiling materials by renting out space in warehouses. There are few places willing to take it.’’

It also has left towns facing higher and unanticipated costs, according to Marie Kurzman, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Recyclers.

“The economics are going to force the issue,’’ she said. “Now, the towns are finding it difficult to get the deal they were used to receiving.’’

Where will recycled material go?

Recycling Single stream
Credit: USEPA
Sorting through recycled items in Montgomery County, Maryland

Ultimately, it could force the recycled material to wind up in landfills because there is no place willing to take it, Brill said. Atlantic Coast Recycling in Passaic told News 12 that 10 to 25 percent of its collected material is now being recycled.

Recycling contractors also are getting squeezed. Their facilities are making not enough profit in selling the materials they collect, process and transport, Kurzman said.

Just how big an impact the Chinese changes will have on recycling in New Jersey is difficult to gauge, officials said. In 2015, the most recent year for which information is available, the state recycled about 43 percent of its municipal waste. That total increased to 63 percent recycled when commercial waste is included.

Eventually, domestic markets may develop to absorb some of the gap left by the disruption in the Chinese market. For instance, some manufacturers have expressed interest in opening up new mills to process cardboard and paper here in the U.S., according to Brill.

“There are some opportunities, but there also are some challenges,’’ said Carpenter.

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