The Chinese no longer want the plastic bottles, milk jugs and junk mail you put in your recycling bin at home.
The world’s largest buyer of recycled materials declared last summer that it would no longer import mixed paper and many types of plastic starting Jan. 1. In some parts of the U.S., bales of unwanted plastics and paper are stacking up in warehouses and in some cases going into landfills.
North Carolina is also feeling the effects of China’s new aversion to what it calls “foreign garbage.” While companies in the Southeast that reprocess recyclables and turn them into new products are still buying, China’s policies have created a glut of materials that has depressed prices everywhere, including the Triangle. Residential mixed paper that was worth between $85 and $100 a ton a year ago was earning about $37 a ton this winter, said Rob Taylor, who until last month headed the recycling program at the state Department of Environmental Quality.
“A paper mill in South Carolina that consumes mixed paper has a lot more paper to pick from,” Taylor said. “It’s going to pick the best, and it’s going to pay less for it.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Many people recycle because they see it as a simple way to help the environment by reducing waste and saving energy. For local governments (and taxpayers), recycling is cheaper than paying to bury trash and helps extend the life of landfills that are difficult and expensive to replace.
But recycling only works when there is someone willing to buy the materials people put in their bins. With China taking itself out of the market, “the recycling system is stressed right now,” Taylor said.
One measure of that stress is that local governments that collect recycling at the curb are now earning little if anything when they pass it on to recycling companies. The City of Raleigh sent 28,412 tons of recycling to the Sonoco Recycling plant on the east side of town in the year ending last June 30. Last June, the city received $9 per ton.
“Last month, we received $0.00,” city spokeswoman Terri Godwin Hyman wrote in an email. “According to Sonoco, this is likely to be the case for at least the foreseeable future.”
Sonoco and other companies that collect and prepare recyclables to be reused say residents can help. They say filling bins with only clean, acceptable materials makes them easier (and cheaper) to sort and get to market.
Recyclables are all mixed together when they’re collected, and places like the Sonoco plant on Rogers Road are where they’re separated. The glass ends up in a pile outside, waiting to be taken to a plant in Wilson, while the other materials – paper, cardboard, aluminum, steel and different types of plastic – are baled and loaded on to trucks, mostly bound for factories in the Southeast.
About 13 percent of what comes in to the building can’t be recycled, says Sonoco plant manager Patrick McDonald. That includes Styrofoam, clothes, electronics, shoes, bubble wrap and plastic bags – materials that should not have been put in the bins in the first place. Recyclers call this “residue,” and removing it is critical to producing bales that companies will want to buy.
As McDonald spoke, a Raleigh recycling truck disgorged its load on the ground just outside the Sonoco plant. At first glance, it looks like so much trash, all mixed and compacted.
“That’s a pretty good looking load, to be honest with you,” McDonald said. But even then it wasn’t hard to see items that will have to be pulled out.
“There’s a shoe. There’s always a shoe,” he said. “And those corduroys shouldn’t be there.”
Sorting by hand
Front loaders scoop this pile onto the first of a series of conveyor belts that will carry recyclables through the plant. Machines do some of the separating work; one is a series of rollers that carry plastic and metal containers and paper up an incline, allowing the containers to fall through openings on the way up while the paper gets pushed over the top into a separate bin.
But much of the work is done with human hands, as workers stand along the conveyor belts sorting different types of plastics or pulling out materials that shouldn’t be there.
To decrease the amount of residue in its finished bales, Sonoco has slowed down the speed of the conveyor belts and increased the number of workers, McDonald said. The Sonoco plant runs about 20 hours a day, separating recycling from Raleigh, Cary, Durham and Orange and Chatham counties, as well as numerous private haulers.
It was not long ago that people were encouraged to keep their paper and cardboard separate from the plastic, glass, steel and aluminum cans and bottles. In Raleigh, city workers would grab each homeowner’s open-topped green bin and sort the recyclables into separate sections of the truck.
To make it easier for residents and the city, Raleigh went to larger, closed-topped blue recycling bins that a city employee can empty with a mechanical arm controlled from the cab of the truck. “Co-mingled” recycling is now the industry standard and is what gave rise to places like the Sonoco plant.
But there was a tradeoff. Where a city worker emptying a bin by hand might leave behind a shoe or a pair of pants, it all now goes into the truck. At Sonoco, the first people who see it are five men who stand on either side of the conveyor belt, pulling out the obvious offenders before the stream flows into machines that separate glass and corrugated cardboard.
“People now have the opportunity to do more recycling, which is a good thing,” McDonald said of the larger blue bins. “However, now there is no visibility on the material until these five gentlemen here see it, and by then it’s too late. At that point, if it’s residue, it’s now our problem because it’s already here.”
China changes course
China apparently felt the same way. The country relied on recycling from around the world as raw materials for its factories, but came to find that too much of what it received was contaminated with garbage or even hazardous waste.
Last year, the country announced new restrictions on the amount of contamination allowed in bales of corrugated cardboard and other materials – numbers so low that many American companies such as Sonoco have stopped sending cardboard to China for fear of it being rejected. Then last summer, China told the World Trade Organization that it would stop importing 24 types of waste, including different types of plastic and mixed paper, starting Jan. 1.
“The big picture is that China is trying to clean up their own environment,” said Taylor, the former state recycling program director. “And they’re trying to grow domestic recycling in China and turn to their own waste stream instead of ours.”
China’s restrictions are felt less keenly in the Southeast because the region is less dependent on exports for its recycling, said Will Sagar, executive director of the Southeast Recycling Development Council, a trade group that represents companies and governments in 11 states from Louisiana to Virginia. There are 360 manufacturing plants in that region that use recycled materials to make new products, according to the council, including 60 in North Carolina. Some like Envision Plastics in Reidsville turn detergent and shampoo bottles into resins to make new bottles, while others, such as Clear Path Recycling of Fayetteville, take plastics bottles and use them in new products, such as flooring or fibers.
Sagar says the Chinese crackdown on contamination will ultimately be good for the U.S. recycling industry, if it results in tighter controls on what goes out the door.
“Our domestic markets don’t like all the contamination either,” he said.
For that to happen, industry officials say, residents will need to be encouraged to do a better job at the front end. The people who run government recycling programs around the country are looking for ways to encourage people to do the right thing, said Scott Mouw of The Recycling Partnership, a national non-profit funded by companies such as Coke, Pepsi and Target.
“What it boils down to if you’re a homeowner and you’ve put the wrong stuff in your cart, the city should be giving you feedback on that,” Mouw said.
Mouw cited campaigns that urge residents not to put their recycling into plastic bags, which the recycling processors sometimes discard because they don’t know what’s inside. Two years ago, Cary surveyed people’s recycling bins and screened for unwanted items, including bagged recyclables. Town workers left behind notes explaining why some items were left in the bin and reminding residents to “keep it loose in the cart” and not use bags.
How to help
▪ Consult your city or town’s recycling program to see what items they accept and most importantly which ones they do not. See a list of links below. Some common items that should not be in your recycling bin include food waste, styrofoam, electronics, shoes, appliances, greasy pizza boxes and clothing.
▪ Leave out items that can gum up the machinery in the recycling plant, including plastic bags, garden hoses, strings of Christmas lights and old VHS tapes. Many grocery stores will take back the plastic grocery bags, which can be recycled.
▪ Put items in your bin loose, not in a plastic trash or kitchen garbage bag. The recycling plant operators don’t know what’s inside those bags, and don’t always take the time to rip them open.
Wake County residents can take all sorts of items, from propane tanks, paint, cellphones and appliances to VHS tapes and oyster shells, to the county’s two recycling drop-off sites. For the complete list, and where you can take them, go to maps.wakegov.com/sw/index.html#/.
In addition, Raleigh residents can take advantage of the city’s new program for recycling shoes and clothing.
For information about what to put in the recycling bins in your community, go to:
Chapel Hill/Carrboro: http://nando.com/50t
Chatham County: http://nando.com/50u
City of Durham: durhamnc.gov/862/Recycling
Durham County: http://nando.com/wd
Holly Springs: www.hollyspringsnc.us/69/Garbage-Recycling
Johnston County: www.johnstonnc.com/recycling/recwaste.cfm
Orange County: http://nando.com/50t
Wake Forest: www.wakeforestnc.gov/recycling.aspx
Other recycling options
You don’t have to rely on the city for recycling large items. Many non-profit thrift stores in the area take furniture and clothing and use the proceeds to further their mission. These include the Green Chair Project, Habitat for Humanity, A - Z Thrift Shop and Retails Thrift Shop, all in Raleigh. The Scrap Exchange in Durham excepts numerous items including Christmas lights, toys, cloth and shoes.
There’s also the Give Back Box program. Re-use your boxes from Amazon to donate clothing or other goods to Goodwill. Amazon allows you to print out a free shipping label on its website and the box will ship free to Goodwill Industries.
For electronics, consider:
▪ Kramden Institute: Accepts computer equipment at no charge. 4915 Prospectus Drive, Durham, 919-293-1133, kramden.org
▪ Triangle Ecycling: Accepts computer equipment at no charge. Other e-waste (such as TVs) recycled for $1/pound. 905 E. Jackie Robinson Drive, Durham, 919-414-3041, triangleecycling.com
▪ Anything with a Plug: TVs and computer monitors (except for those with tubes or projection), appliances, etc. and the cords and plugs. 1008 Hammell Drive, Raleigh, www.anythingwithaplugrecycling.com
▪ Raleigh Metal Recycling: Buys laptops, PCs, towers, servers, main frames, printers, copiers, microwaves but not computer monitors. 2310 Garner Road, Raleigh, 919-828-5426, www.raleighscrapmetalrecycling.com/