The trade-based tariffs leveled by the U.S. government on imports from China have led to an unexpected consequence – curbside recycling costs are going up. Cities across the country are re-considering their recycling programs thanks to Chinese regulations enacted as a response, in part, to the tariffs enacted by President Donald Trump.
For years, China has purchased recycling material that was collected in the U.S. Chinese workers would clean the recycling and prepare it for re-use. Dirty recyclables are contaminated by non-recyclable material, food stuffs, and other items. The Chinese labor market paid workers a low wage to clean the dirty material. As the Chinese economy shifted, many were no longer willing to perform this task and so China put tighter restrictions on what percentage of dirty recycling it would accept.
These restrictions grew tighter over time until this past spring when, in a retaliatory effort, China cut back on the amount of material it would purchase overall. This has left communities across the U.S. with piles of essentially unusable materials.
“We have a serious contamination issue. It hinders not only China, but our domestic markets too," said Will Sagar, of the Southeast Recycling Development Council. "The contamination is a cost burden across all participants in the value chain.”
Where companies were once selling recyclable material, they are now being forced to pay to dispose of it. In some communities, special adjustments to regulations are being made to allow for recycled material to not be recycled. The costs related to these adjustments impact communities' financial well-being.
Kent County, Mich., for example, has seen a loss of more than $1 million year to date due to the issue. In Berkley, Calif., city officials have proposed a 25-cent charge on consumers who do not bring their own containers and cups when ordering takeout food and coffee, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The effects of these changes eventually hit households. Recycling companies across the country are considering having to raise their monthly collection prices while others are warning residents that they may need to suspend or stop their programs altogether. Longer term, it could culminate in less recycled material being used in products, which leads to higher costs to consumers and greater environmental costs as well.
“I think that's something everyone in the industry is working on – how do we get that message out and have it heard?" said Marjorie Griek, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition. "We've spent 20+ years making it easier – fewer bins, more materials – and now we have to alter that message and alter our habits. And no, just altering our recycling habits will not be enough.”
Losing access to the Chinese markets have forced recyclers to make a number of tough business decisions. They are also trying to adapt consumers to a more proactive way of participating in recycling programs. With many municipalities having turned to single stream recycling (throwing all recyclable material into the same bin), it won’t be easy to change consumer habits.
“I think we have two [points] to address,” Sagar said. “One, recycling is still important and there is a need for materials. We must counter the current rash of stories that are bound to hurt participation. Second, we have to address contamination. ... The contamination is multifaceted and requires concentrated and coordinated efforts.”
Sagar holds out hope that things will turn around for the industry.
“Please recognize that while recycling is troubled, it is not dead,” he said.