How tougher Chinese restrictions on plastics are affecting recycling in NJ

For years, the United States has been sending our contaminated recycling to China. But now that the country is cleaning up its environment, the Chinese government has issued strict restrictions and is refusing to accept many types of plastics.

Recycling facilities are now left to rely on homeowners to follow recycling rules for curbside pickup so they can ship out a product that follows those guidelines.

“The machine can only do so much, the human labor can only do so much, and at the end result of the baling process, we bale and ship these products overseas. If that bale has something in there that doesn’t belong, we can get a rejection,” said Tiffanie Nyzio, operations manager for Giordano Companies, a family-owned recycling facility in Newark.

Giordano handles contracts with 11 towns — nine in Union County and two in Essex. Nyzio says there is no way to tell if people are correctly recycling until they dump the bins.

She says the biggest challenge is people putting plastic bags inside inside their recycling bins. She says it’s difficult for workers to sort out every single plastic bag, and if it jams up the equipment it can shut down the entire plant.

“The plastic bags cause a problem for our machinery. Right behind us are the star screens that are used to separate the material. The bags get wrapped around those screens, and every day at the end of the day the machine is locked out and we have to have our employees cut the bags off of the screens,” said Nyzio. “But even worse than that, one bag can shut down the entire facility and then we have no processing for the whole day because of plastic bags. So we don’t want plastic bags in any way, shape or form.”

“Its kind of confusing for our residents because we’ve been training them recycle, recycle, recycle,” said Walter Clarke, village trustee of South Orange. “Now we’re saying, ‘this isn’t allowed in the recycling and this isn’t allowed in the recycling,’ and I think they want to do the right thing, but what’s the right thing?”

Clarke chairs the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee and says education is key. He says people are confused about the restrictions and in turn, don’t follow them.

“If a load is contaminated — and that can mean a lot of things — like if your paper is wet, it’s useless to them, if cardboard is wet, it’s useless to them, if you’re not cleaning out that peanut butter jar, that’s not good, clean plastic they can recycle. So they, the haulers have to tag the residents so sometimes their recycling won’t get picked up,” Clarke said.

Ultimately leaving recycling facilities left to bear the brunt of it, which is why Nyzio says they have now had to double the prices they’re charging towns. Nyzio says when it comes to recycling, “when in doubt, throw it out” — in the trash and not the recycle bin. She recommends looking online to better understand the rules, because it comes with a cost.