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How China’s Green Wave Is Making Recycling More Expensive In Maine

Troy R. Bennett
Bangor Daily News
Workers at ecomaine sort recyclable materials at the plant in Portland, April 17, 2013.

Gouldsboro Town Manager Sherri Cox immediately cut a town service when, early into the new budget season, she discovered a steep rise in recycling fees that threatened to bust the budget.

“We budgeted $80 per ton for curbside recycling, but I was told that could go up to $200 per ton by the end of this year,” she said.

The $80 per ton amount was budgeted before a shocking May bill for $137 per ton arrived.

“We had to stop recycling immediately,” Cox said when she saw the high bill and was told things would likely get worse.

The Hancock County town plans to stop curbside recycling on Sept. 1. Meanwhile, it’s looking for alternatives to keep recycling, but affordable answers are lacking, Cox said.

Much of the extra cost stems from volatile waste management prices after China — in an effort to clean up its environment and industry — banned imports of 24 waste items from the United States, Europe and other countries starting Jan. 1, 2018. China is the largest importer of solid waste in the world.

But there are other reasons for the escalating costs, including “dirty” recycling that contains items that cannot be recycled or is too expensive to clean and resell for a profit.

Gouldsboro isn’t alone among towns throughout Maine struggling with high recycling costs. Cox said after the news that the town was ending its curbside pickup got out, a handful of other town managers facing a similar struggle called for advice.

Gouldsboro’s solid waste committee recommended to the selectboard during a meeting last week that the town set up bins at the transfer station where residents could self-sort specific items, but it still proved too expensive to find someone to take the recyclables, Cox said.

“It’s something a lot of towns are looking at,” Cox said of waste disposal. “But it’s a worldwide issue.”

Many towns are placing detailed signs and brochures at transfer stations and on town websites telling residents how to prepare recyclables. For example, the instructions for recycling are posted at the Tri-County Solid Waste transfer station that serves Appleton, Liberty, Somerville, Union and Washington.

“Most Maine consumers aren’t affected so far,” said Vic Horton, executive director of the Maine Resource Recovery Association, an industry group based in Newport.

“Towns are handling the contamination fees and they haven’t hit home for residents,” he said. “But the towns have to incur costs that aren’t necessarily budgeted.”

Warning Signs

Even though there’s plenty of money to be made by various parties in the international waste management business, Horton doesn’t expect China’s market to open wide again. He and other experts said the business is changing and new approaches are needed.

“It might rebound a bit, but I think the change is permanent,” he said. “[China] warned us.”

China started importing large volumes of waste and scrap 30 years ago. It took waste loaded onto otherwise empty ships that had delivered goods to Europe and the United States before returning to China, which imported 47 million tons in 2015.

But China has publicized its policies to clean its environment and drastically reduce dirty waste imports since 2013, starting with the “Green Fence” project and its intensive inspections.

Credit Troy R. Bennett / Bangor Daily News
Bangor Daily News
An ecomaine employee pulls plastic bags from the recycling steam at the nonprofit’s center in Portland, April 7, 2013.

Even local waste management organizations like ecomaine in Portland included extra fees in their contracts for dirty recycling, such as greasy pizza boxes or broken glass shards that can’t be recycled.

In both cases, neither carried out its policies with a heavy hammer, so dirty waste continued to pile up, largely ignored until recently.

However, last September, China began more strictly enforcing its stated 0.5 percent limit for allowable contamination. Until then, it often took recycling with 20 percent to 40 percent contamination, ecomaine spokesman Matt Grondin said.

“There wasn’t much incentive to clean up the trash before then,” he said, because no one was enforcing rules.

That was followed by the import ban on 24 kinds of solid waste, including components of plastic bottles.

Waste Stream Diverted

Now, waste formerly bound for China is headed to Vietnam, India and Indonesia. Vietnam already is so overloaded with waste that it is no longer accepting imports of certain items, according to Reuters.

Credit Courtesy of Amy Brooks / via Bangor Daily News
via Bangor Daily News
Plastic film bales piled on the side of the road in Vietnam, which has become an alternate export market for waste since China imposed its ban in January.

“This is a huge wake-up call,” said Amy Brooks, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute in Athens, Georgia. She recently completed a scientific paper on China’s ban on plastics imports and is looking at other areas of Asia.

“We in the United States probably have twice as much waste per year per person than the people of Southeast Asia, and they’re less able to properly manage [what we’re sending to them],” she said.

China’s imports of solid waste were down 57 percent in the first three months of 2018, compared with the same time in 2017, partly because of the import ban and a crackdown on smuggling, according to state news agency Xinhua, which cited data from the customs authority.

Li Ganjie, China’s minister of ecology and environment, has said the ban on foreign rubbish is a major step to improve the environment, safeguard national ecological security and follow the country’s green development strategy, according to Xinhua.

And ecomaine didn’t start enforcing its dirty recycling policy until May, drawing notice from towns and transfer stations whose goods carried sometimes significant extra costs.

So far, towns in Maine have paid the costs, but Brooks and others expect that eventually will trickle down to consumers.

Seeking Solutions

Brooks said waste managers will have to look for new markets, including domestically, because the worldwide waste management market has changed.

Wastedive, a website that monitors the effect of the Chinese waste ban on individual states, listed some of the ways Maine already is being pinched by China’s new policy and possible solutions.

It pointed to Maine Environmental Protection Commissioner Paul Mercer’s description of the state being “ significantly impacted” in his summer newsletter. He said his staff is “working with others in the recycling industry to support the development of new materials processing facilities and domestic markets for recyclables and to educate consumers to ‘Recycle right!’ so we create clean commodities readily remanufactured into new products.”

He wrote that the Department of Environmental Protection is launching a small grants program, The Maine Solid Waste Diversion Grant Program, to improve Maine’s recycling infrastructure.

Another possibility, mentioned by Cox, Brooks and others, is educating consumers on single-stream recycling, which puts paper, bottles, plastics and other items in one bin. It is prone to cross-contamination by consumers who feel they are being good by recycling, but who don’t know how to correctly sort recyclables.

A consumer needs to know that a clean plastic milk carton is recyclable, but its lid isn’t and should go into the trash can. Having a waste management person remove the lids adds money.

Cox said broken glass bottles are a major problem because they contaminate everything else near them.

Credit Fred J. Field / ecomaine/via Bangor Daily News
ecomaine/via Bangor Daily News
As China stopped taking "dirty" recycling like pizza boxes from the United States and other countries on Jan. 1, 2018, Kevin Roche, general manager of waste management organization ecomaine, in May started charging customers, including Maine towns, a premium to take away greasy or contaminated items.

For waste managers, looking for new markets that take different products can be an answer.

For example, ecomaine still recycles 60 percent paper, or about 26,000 tons per year. That was a profitable business this time last year, bringing in about $100 per ton, Grondin said.

This year ecomaine is paying $25 to $40 per ton to get rid of the paper.

“We’re losing money,” he said.

However, the high-density natural plastic used in clear milk jugs is bringing in $880 per ton, compared with $620 per ton last year. That plastic has a domestic market in Michigan and Alabama, so shipping is less expensive. He said it’s not enough money to offset losses from paper, but it is a promising market.

“We haven’t relied as much on China with milk jugs so that’s helped us,” he said.There’s also a market for clean cardboard in New York, Massachusetts and Ohio.

Finally, scientists are researching new materials for foods that could biodegrade more quickly. For example, University of Maine professor Doug Bousfield aims to develop fully recyclable packaging for potato chips using cellulose nanomaterials derived from wood pulp instead of the aluminum layer in the bag that now keeps the chips from spoiling.

This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.