China’s move to stop taking many imported recycled materials is hitting home in Pennsylvania by diminishing the prices commanded for recycled material as interest in recycling by residents continues to increase.
China last year stopped taking 24 varieties of waste, including some plastics and unsorted. Additional products are expected to be added their list of banned imports by the end of 2019, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“The decision by the Chinese government to close access has obviously had a fairly significant result,” said Kevin Kraushaar, senior vice president for government affairs for the National Waste and Recycling Association, told a state House committee in a hearing this week on the issues facing the recycling industry.
Without China as a destination there’s a “glut in the marketplace,” he said.
For recyclers, that creates challenges as their revenues are suffering even as costs of doing business increase, he said.
In 2016, China imported about 7.3 million tons of waste plastics, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. About 30 percent of materials recycled in the U.S. went to China, according to the group.
China has also tightened its rules regarding how much contamination it will accept in recycled products, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. The industry standard for contamination typically ranges between 1 and 5 percent. Under the new policy, China’s standard is 0.5 percent.
In 2016, Pennsylvania recycled over 7.84 million tons of resources, according to data provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
That included the following amounts recycling through the state’s municipal-run recycling programs:
-- 12,067 tons of #1 and #2 plastics, commonly used in bottles and containers for household products
-- 101,765 tons of office paper
-- 52,835 tons of newsprint
-- 11,139 tons of aluminum cans
-- 1,113,407 tons of cardboard.
“Changes in recycling markets sometimes require municipal recycling programs to adjust the types of materials they can accept, especially when they cannot find markets for certain materials,” said Elizabeth Rementer, a Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman. “All municipal recycling programs are affected by these trends.”
The agency could not provide data for this story more recent than 2016, Rementer said. While the local recycling programs file annual reports to the state, “it takes time to aggregate and disseminate the data,” she said.
She maintained, however, that the amount being recycled has been “static or slightly rising.”
Statewide recycling in Pennsylvania began in 1988 with the Municipal Waste Planning Recycling and Waste Reduction Act (Act 101) that requires larger municipalities to recycle. Currently, there are 475 municipalities in the state required to offer recycling programs to their residents, but another 586 have offered it voluntarily.
One of the challenges now facing those efforts is that the state hands out recycling grants with funding from a $2 per ton fee charged on waste going into landfills, said Lisa Schaefer, director of government relations for the County Commissions Association of Pennsylvania.
“Ironically, as more people recycle, there’s less funding,” Schaefer said, because there’s less waste heading into the landfills.
In 2003, the state’s recycling fund got $47 million in revenue, but in recent years that’s dropped to $38 million per year, according to DEP.
Legislation introduced in the state House on Monday would seek to address that by more than doubling the fee on waste heading into landfills – upping it from $2 per ton to $5 per ton.
“Many communities now struggle to keep up with the rising costs associated with recycling programs. As a result, more and more recyclable items are being sent to incinerators and landfills,” said state Rep. MaryLou Isaacson, D-Philadelphia.
In a memo to lawmakers, Isaacson said that the increase may be modest considering how long it’s been since the rate was set.
“Due to the fact that the fee has not been increased in over three decades, this increase in fee is about $1 per decade,” she said.
Schaefer said since more people are recycling, it’s creating challenges for local governments and counties that want to offer the service but find that it’s getting too expensive to bear.
Schaefer said that the legislation probably has little chance of moving at the Capitol, though, “in the current climate in Harrisburg, where there’s a reluctance to approve any kind of tax or fee.”
Another possible piece of legislation would also seek to help counties by giving them the authority to charge a $4 per ton fee on waste going to landfills to help them fund county-run recycling programs.
State Rep. Patty Kim D-Dauphin County, has circulated a memo indicating plans for the bill, but has not yet introduced it.
In addition to the grants to help municipalities cover the cost of recycling, the state does have programs in place to try to promote new markets for recycled products, Rementer said.
The Department of Environmental Protection provides $800,000 a year in funding for the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, based at Penn State Harrisburg, which helps companies interested in using recycled materials to produce new products.
In addition, there are other promising developments.
For instance, Agilyx, an Oregon-based company, is in the process of establishing a facility in southeastern Pennsylvania that will accept 500 tons per day of recycled plastics, John Desmarteau, director of business development for the company told the House Environment and Energy Resource committee in the Wednesday hearing.
That facility would accept plastics that are difficult to otherwise recycle and will use the material to produce jet fuel, he said.
“We expect the market to recover,” Kraushaar said. “We expect that to happen, but it’s going to take time.”