With China putting greater focus on cleaning up its polluted environment, it's placing increased restrictions on the recycled imports it receives from companies around the world.
The ripple effect for the Greater Lehigh Valley? It’s going to cost more to recycle thanks to increased operating costs and limited markets for mixed paper and plastics.
Recycling business experts explored the topic during a panel discussion at the 2018 Lehigh Valley Energy & Environment Outlook and Expo at Homewood Suites in Upper Saucon Township on Friday.
The Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce hosted the discussion to bring attention to the growing problem. The decision to allow fewer recyclables in China could also lead to higher commodity prices for U.S. companies as China makes even stricter requirements on the types of solid waste it now accepts.
However, residents, local governments and businesses appear vested in recycling and want to make sure they keep doing it properly, according to the officials.
Overall, Pennsylvania has a vibrant recycling industry with about 175,586 jobs related to recycling in the state, said Wayne Bowen, senior recycling program manager for the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center at Penn State Harrisburg in Middletown, and a panelist at the event. It’s an industry that represents about $50 billion in sales, with wages 23 percent above the Pennsylvania average, he added.
CHINA’S AGGRESSIVE APPROACH
Bowen said 60 percent of China’s groundwater is unfit for human consumption and 19 percent of its arable land contaminated by heavy metals. This lead to moves by China to control imports, a plan that began in 2016 and continued into 2017
In April 2017, China’s president created a task force that approved expanding the categories of prohibited solid waste materials allowed for import. China notified the World Trade Organization in July 2017 and began shutting down many non-compliant facilities in China that same month. Then, in January, China banned more than 24 categories of materials. Enterprises began closing, which led to lost customers for U.S. recycling businesses that exported materials to China.
Looking ahead, China plans a potential ban on additional materials and will institute greater enforcement of these bans, Bowen said.
This will bring depressed commodity pricing and less program revenue for recycling businesses, he added.
HOW TO MANAGE IT
Allentown began single-stream recycling in 2016, according to Ann Saurman, manager of the Bureau of Recycling and Solid Waste in the city of Allentown, and a panelist. With this system, people put materials such as glass, plastics, paper and metal in one bin.
Allentown transports the materials from its curbside collection to TotalRecycle, a materials recovery facility operated by J.P. Mascaro & Sons in Exeter Township, Berks County. The facility separates, bales and markets the materials.
“Why we rely on exporting it to other countries, we need to keep exploring those other markets,” Saurman said.
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola has a goal to collect and recycle 100 percent of every bottle or can it sells globally by 2030, said Ken Zinis, safety, environment and security manager at Coca-Cola Lehigh Valley Syrup of Upper Macungie Township, and a panelist.
KEEP CONTAMINANTS OUT
However, the experts said keeping the recycled materials clean at the source is critical.
“We really need to think of recycling as a business,” Zinis said. “The key is to keep that material clean at the source, looking for the highest, best values of those materials. It’s just another material that has to be managed.”
Coca-Cola’s Upper Macungie plant is a zero-landfill facility, Zinis said. While it is not easy to put such a process into place, it is easy to keep it sustainable, he added.
“Education of our people is really important, your service providers really have the experience to get you through this,” Zinis said.
Panelist Andrew Dunbar, director of commodity sales for Waste Management, said the single-stream process is not the culprit, but rather the fact that operating costs have increased, quality requirements are strict and markets for mixed paper and mixed plastics are limited.
“This is our single biggest battle, just driving out the contamination from the process,” Dunbar said. “What is broken is the mixed paper [lack of markets] and amount of residue…that’s what’s impacting the process.”
People still want to recycle, and that’s something that hasn’t changed, he added.
Handling contaminants in the recycling process is the biggest hurdle for Cougle’s Recycling Center in Hamburg, said Tiffany Macaulay, the company’s public relations and marketing officer and a panelist.
However, the China issue could help people understand the importance of recycling carefully, according to Macaulay.
“I think this is where the opportunity presents itself,” Macaulay said. “There’s a big push for education that I think is starting to happen.”
Zinis agreed, saying it’s an opportunity to grow the recycling business and do it domestically.
The experts agreed that plastic bags do not go into recycling bins since they can get caught in the belt systems at recycling centers. People should not recycle them through the curbside program but instead, bring them to the drop off centers offered at many supermarkets.