Spokane Journal of Business

China’s double-edged sword and its effects on Spokane recycling

Increased competition for recyclables expected here following Asian country’s clampdown

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-—Samantha Peone
Waste Management recently added five people to the recyclables sorting staff at its SMaRT Center on the West Plains in an effort to get rid of more contaminated goods.
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-—Samantha Peone
Deb Geiger, regional solid waste manager for Spokane County, says the county isn’t diverting any of the recyclable materials yet.
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New restrictions halfway around the world are expected to prompt increased competition for the Spokane-area’s recyclables—and potentially increased costs—for businesses and consumers here.

Deb Geiger, regional solid waste manager for Spokane County, says China’s new, tighter recyclables-acceptance policy, called National Sword, will impact Spokane’s market, which includes the U.S. and Canada, because of more competition from those who can’t sell recyclables abroad. 

“Because our market is very domestic, it’s not China so much that will affect us,” Geiger says. “Instead, it’s the stronger competition in the domestic market, but we already have a leg up with how well we recycle.”

In 2013, China launched Operation Green Fence, increasing inspection rates of imported recyclables, according to information through the Silver Spring, Md.-based Solid Waste Association of North America. Four years later, China launched the National Sword policy to cut back more severely on the amount of contaminated and low-value materials the country had been importing from recyclers around the world.

Last July, China notified the World Trade Organization that the country would no longer import 24 different types of solid waste and recyclables and that it would reduce contamination rates of accepted imports to 0.3 percent, which was raised to 0.5 percent in March. Last month, China announced 32 more varieties of recyclable material will be banned by year-end.

During the Journal’s reporting and researching of the quickly evolving National Sword policy, the U.S. operations of China Certification & Inspection Group Ltd., the agency that inspects items that China imports, was suspended for an entire month. As of last week, the agency was expected to resume operations June 4.

Brad Lovaas, Olympia, Wash.-based executive director of the Washington Refuse & Recycling Association trade group, says recyclable plastics No. 1 and No. 2 might still be accepted after June 4, but he was unsure of that likelihood earlier this week.

Recyclable No. 1, or polyethylene terephthalate, includes peanut butter jars, soft drink bottles, sports drink bottles, and water bottles. Recyclable No. 2, or high-density polyethylene, includes bleach and detergent bottles, juice bottles, milk jugs, and shampoo bottles.

China has banned all other categories of recyclable plastics, says Lovaas. Those recyclables still have been moving through recycling facilities, albeit at a slower pace, to domestic markets and foreign markets other than China.

Geiger says restrictive measures similar to National Sword would have happened eventually.

“Even though they’re restrictions, China is really just asking for cleaner products,” says Geiger. “It’s been going on for a while; if not China, then someone else would’ve done it.”

Geiger says the county isn’t diverting recyclable materials yet, and they aren’t being sent to the Waste-to-Energy Facility on the West Plains for disposal with other, nonrecyclable garbage yet, says Geiger. 

Kris Major, education coordinator for the city of Spokane’s Solid Waste Disposal department, says the policy hasn’t drastically affected the city yet.

“I know other collectors have asked their solid waste (municipality) officials for special permission for landfill or storing materials in case the market changes,” says Major. “That hasn’t been an issue for Spokane County so far.”

Marlene Feist, strategic development director for the Spokane Department of Public Works, says the city adopted new garbage and recycling rates last July that involved annual 2.9 percent increases through 2020. Consumers pay a single rate for those services, she says, and officials can reconvene if they need to change their pricing.

“For the moment, we’ve been able to afford the increased costs for collection rates,” she says.

Jim Schrock, owner of Spokane-based Earthworks Recycling Inc., at 1904 E. Broadway, says, “Some of our cardboard, we’re getting a premium (price) on, because we’re already within the restriction, but we’re having trouble getting rid of some other things.”

He’s had difficulty getting rid recyclable items that have a mix of materials, such as car starters and alternators.

“The more mixed they are, the less they’re going to be worth,” says Schrock.

Schrock also runs Junxtore, a warehouse that sells used and surplus recycled goods, including barrels and drums, books, office furniture, and other goods, its website says.

“To me, it feels like the worst is over, but all we need is the right people in China saying we’re going to toughen up,” says Schrock. “But what do I know? I just have a little scrap yard in Spokane.”

Lovaas says China implemented National Sword for “some pretty darn good reasons.”

“The only argument our industry would have, I think, is that we just want a bit more time to deal with it,” he says.

Lovaas claims paper is the state’s single biggest recyclable commodity.

Information provided by Lovaas from the Washington Refuse & Recycling Association shows the U.S. exported 4.7 million tons of paper and 1.2 million tons of plastics to China in January and February 2017. That number dropped to 2.5 million tons and 10,000 tons, respectively, during the first two months of this year.

“You’re taking the biggest market for paper and plastics, and you’re all but closing the door,” says Lovaas.

Jackie Lang, Waste Management’s Oregon and Washington region spokeswoman, says the company continues to champion recycling.

“We continue to recycle, and we’ve found new markets,” Lang says.

She declines to disclose these markets, saying recycling is a deeply competitive business.

Waste Management owns the Spokane Materials and Recycling Technology Center, or SMaRT Center, at 2902 S. Geiger Blvd., on the West Plains. 

Lang says the SMaRT Center had to hire more employees and slow down its assembly line to remove contamination better and cater the new National Sword restrictions, increasing operation costs.

“Contamination is just a big word for things that shouldn’t be in the recycling anyway, such as food, liquid, and garbage bags,” says Lang. “That’s the No. 1 factor related to higher costs.”

Steven Gimpel, Spokane-based education and outreach coordinator with Waste Management, says 40 sorters and quality control personnel now work per shift, up from about 35 a year ago.

The SMaRT Center sorts through a single stream of all recyclable materials and sends them out to various plants and mills, says Gimpel.

The center can sort and recycle 25 tons per hour, down from 30 tons per hour before National Sword’s implementation. The center processes roughly 65,000 tons of recyclables annually, he says.

Gimpel says he frequently receives questions by business representatives and citizens on what they can do differently or better.

First, he says, there aren’t any changes on what can be recycled by Waste Management here; businesses can recycle the same paper, cardboard, cans, and bottles.

Second, businesses should keep food and liquids out of the recycling bin. That includes “wish recycling,” which are materials such as bottle caps or hoses that can’t be recycled, but people put them in the recycling bin in hopes they can be recycled.

Third, businesses should keep plastic bags out of the recycling bin, and they shouldn’t bag their recycling.

For the SMaRT Center, Gimpel says recyclables still move through the center to established and new markets.

Looking forward, Lang says, “What we’re seeing now is a sea change with global impacts. The good news for the greater Spokane area is that the recycling culture is deeply rooted, strong, and healthy. Looking forward, the single most important thing we can do in our homes and businesses is to clean up recycling.”

Samantha Peone
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