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.