Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Rural recycling programs in U.S. are squeezed by China's tougher standards for imports of paper and other waste

"Big cities have shielded their residents from the impact of China’s decision last year to curtail the solid waste it will accept from other countries. But rural and small-town residents are starting to get squeezed by a change that is wreaking havoc on the global recycling market," Rebecca Beitsch reports for Stateline.

China was the world's largest importer of waste paper, used plastic and scrap metal for decades, but last year stopped accepting some kinds of recyclables and tightened its standards for the purity of what it accepts. It wants less non-recyclable waste, hazardous waste, or incorrectly sorted recyclables mixed in with recyclables) The recycling industry generally tolerates between 1 percent to 5 percent impurity in recyclables, but China's new standard is 0.5 percent.

Normally, communities or their contractors can recoup some or all of the cost of their recycling programs by selling the scrap, but China's policy shift has rendered some types of recyclables worthless. While some cities have been able to absorb the financial hit, many small towns can't.

"Small-town recycling programs already are more expensive than those in bigger cities," Beitsch reports. "Houses tend to be farther apart, making collection more expensive. Rural communities spend more to transport their recyclables to centers that can find markets. And they cannot produce the volume of material that buyers want." That's why many use private contractors.

As a result of the policy shift, many small towns and rural areas have had to curtail or end recycling programs or pay more to dump scrap at nearby recycling centers. 

Brittany Prischak, the environmental sustainability coordinator for Erie County, Pennsylvania, told Beitsch that the squeeze will make it harder to keep the county recycling program going, though state law mandates such programs in communities with more than 10,000 residents. China's decision is highlighting and widening a rural-urban divide in terms of recycling opportunities, Prischak told Beitsch: "Before the changes even started to happen you could see the difference of where recycling was most convenient in urban areas versus where it’s difficult like rural areas to recycle even if they want to recycle."

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