It would be reasonable to assume that industrial innovation or chemical engineering limit what goes into local recycling bins and what gets consigned to the trash. But the contents of your bin respond to big business – the vast networks of scraps transported and repurposed across borders.
When China drastically changed its recyclables import policy this year, it caused a ripple effect across U.S. waste management, particularly on the West Coast. And the effects were felt in Los Altos and Mountain View.
“It’s a short- to medium-term chaos,” said Mark Bowers, who manages the SMaRT Station in Sunnyvale that receives all of Mountain View’s recycling. “There’s still demand for the material, things are still going to be made from it, it’s just a huge dislocation.”
Factories that processed recyclables into core ingredients used to ring the bay, in places like Oakland, San Leandro and Antioch. No longer. The area’s last paper mill, Graphic Packing International in Santa Clara, closed in December. China, with its surging industrial production, has been soaking up U.S. recyclables and repurposing them into new consumer products for decades. But China’s new ban on “foreign garbage,” implemented Jan. 1, included plastic and paper waste earmarked for recycling. Until this year, containers emptied of consumer goods in Oakland headed back to China’s fast, efficient ports stuffed with recyclables – and at a bargain price.
“We had this conveyer belt going across the Pacific,” Bowers said. “An alternate hasn’t emerged. Vietnam’s and India’s ports don’t have as much capacity, and they aren’t as efficient. It’s more of a problem physically getting it to willing buyers than anything else.”
Given rule changes and the markets’ volatility, bales of orphaned recycling are finding themselves with nowhere to go. Local recycling plants, including the SMaRT Station, have had to deal with the fire hazard of huge, stranded paper bales piling up in the warehouse as old trade routes evaporate before new ones are formed.
“We began to fashion our paper-sorting process to match the demands of the Chinese buyers,” Bowers explained.
But the bales of U.S. recyclables included contaminants ultimately filtered out, and dealt with, in the Chinese market. Some U.S. sellers were shipping more tainted materials than others, Bowers said.
“The Chinese government got to the point where they said, ‘OK, we’ve got a pollution problem. We want to clean up China, reduce pollution and be a player on the world stage. And we can’t be a player on the world stage if we’re viewed as the place to which you ship your garbage.’”
Bowers doesn’t see the Chinese government reversing its decision, because it’s “not market-based, it’s a geopolitical statement that ‘We care about our environment and we’re not going to take your garbage any more.’”
He predicted that within a few years, recyclers would increasingly be able to ship their bales to places such as India, Indonesia and Korea, which would produce an intermediate product that was then shipped to China.
Paying $10-$20 per ton to a buyer in India to take Mountain View’s recyclables is still cheaper than landfilling it, Bowers pointed out. But while those pass-through countries develop the ports, infrastructure and trade relationships to make that process work, the industry is experiencing price volatility and chaos.
Paper has seen the most disruption – Mountain View’s plastics were primarily already bound for a plant in Lodi that makes brown plastic benderboard used in landscaping. But prices have dropped, because the people who were shipping their plastics to China are now competing with cities like Mountain View to offload their product.
Los Altos’ recyclables are picked up by Mission Trail Waste System, consolidated and transported to a plant in San Leandro, where they are also hand-sorted, baled and shipped to varied destinations.
In Los Altos, residents are encouraged to recycle any plastics marked with a recycling symbol and the numbers 1-7. Mountain View’s waste and recycling division takes a more detailed approach, educating residents about how many seeming recyclables actually end up re-sorted into the trash – and why. They encourage residents to put only containers – defined as bottles, jars and margarine/sour cream/cottage cheese-type tubs – in the plastic recycling. The reason?
“Aspirational recycling,” the practice of putting objects in the recycling that one really wishes didn’t have to go in the garbage, ultimately costs the city time and expense because such items must get removed at the plant and returned to the trash.
Recycling mills require clean bales of narrowly selected recycling product, so “contamination” ranging from food waste to the wrong kinds of plastic must be machine- and hand-sorted out. Cities are better able to find a home for recycling, and do so at less cost in labor, when residents restrict their recycling bins to the items known to be acceptable. When it comes to plastics in particular, the list isn’t as long as you’d think.
“What we’re looking for is containers – bottles, jugs, things with a neck and tubs,” Bowers said. “As I put it, ‘Don’t get creative.”
He gets his education in what to put in the recycling bin, and in a city’s recycling policy, directly from the mill buyers who will be accepting bales of municipal refuse for reuse.
“It’s very complicated, even for those of us in the business,” Bowers said.
Lori Topley, Mountain View’s Solid Waste Program manager, explained in an interview that the numbers on the bottom of a plastic container reveal what resin it’s made from – but not whether the city can find a recycler willing to take the product and reuse it. Any plastic lacking a market – even those items for which a reuse technology exists – ends up in a landfill. Public goodwill and willingness to sort products underpins a city’s recycling program but is only one link in a system that requires international and industrial collaboration to do something with that carefully sorted not-trash.
“Every facility that accepts recycling finds different buyers, and their brokers will give them different standards,” Topley said of why the “acceptable” recycling lists vary from city to city in the Bay Area. “Some of them do a better job of meeting the standards than others, and it can depend on the kind of equipment that you have at your facility for sorting things, and how much money you’re spending on labor to have people pull things out.”
• Food boxes designed to survive in a freezer case don’t dissolve appropriately during the recycling process, and have to go in the garbage.
• Plastic bags can’t go in recycling carts. If you carry your recyclables out in a plastic bag, dump them in loose and toss the bag in the trash. Plastic bags are a particular bugbear of recycling plants, where they wind around machinery, causing clogs and downtime.
• Plastic dishes, cups and utensils can’t go in the recycling in Mountain View. Neither can clamshell-style plastic containers or most plastic takeout food containers. Neither can compostable food containers or coffee cups.
• Cardboard egg cartons go in the trash. They’ve been recycled so many times already that the very short fibers are worthless for industrial reuse.
• Lids can stay on (clean) jugs and bottles, Bowers said. During the shredding process at a recycling mill, plastics of different densities are separated, as rigid caps sink in a water bath and more flexible bottle walls float. Both elements can ultimately find a market for reuse. In cities like Los Altos, which use single-stream recycling bins, those lids also can keep leaks contained and paper products dry.
That shredding process, separating and flaking plastics into base components, may increasingly occur on U.S. soil as a response to China’s rule changes. A shipment of flaked plastic material has a better chance of making it to a Chinese port because it will qualify as an industrial product, not waste, according to Bowers.
Marginal items like clamshell plastic containers – which may have a market one month and not the next, could in theory sometimes be recycled. Mountain View opts to sort municipal trash, pulling out items when they see a market opportunity but making its recycling bins conservative, focused on items that can be used month in and month out. The city sorts trash using both equipment and people able to scan for high-value recyclables such as CRV bottles, Topley said. So putting a drink bottle in a city trash can as you’re walking downtown is not as much of a recycling sin as it might at first seem, though separated bins are best.
“It’s not our first choice of recycling,” Topley said. “We want people to separate, and furthermore we choose to use a split cart system because the more you can keep the paper and the containers separated, the more chance you have of getting a clean, marketable product. Sorting the trash is a last defense.”