How will China's recycling restrictions affect Colorado?

China is clamping down on the recyclable materials it is accepting from other countries.

It’s a move that is forcing numerous states, including Colorado, to scramble to figure out what to do with all of the recycled material that comes in every day.

This new restriction comes in two parts, both of which went into effect this year.

The first part is a China's National Sword policy, which was passed last year and bans multiple types of plastic waste from being imported. The policy claims that too much of the recycled material coming in is contaminated with garbage and so it sets a new contamination limit of 0.5 percent.

“A lot of the material that was getting sold was going to China just because they have that strong demand to make new products out of recyclables,” said Wolf Kray, an environmental protection specialist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “Unfortunately, they were getting more and more contaminants in the materials sent over there and eventually it got to a point where they just had to say, ‘We’re not taking anymore, there’s just too much trash and contamination.’”

The United States ships about half of all its recycling to China to process. The new limits on contamination went into effect in March.

“China is actually having inspectors go out and look at the recyclables to make sure that they don’t have other materials in there,” Kray said.

He said he was surprised by how quickly the new regulations went into effect. It has caused the entire industry to rethink how it does business, he added.

“It was a pretty big wake-up call for everybody in the industry that we need to do a better job as far as making sure that we are not putting contaminants in the recycling stream and making sure the check gets don’t sloppy with recycling,” he said. 

Because China is the largest importer of recyclable materials, this new change is affecting the way some Colorado recycling facilities operate.

Alpine Waste & Recycling has brought in extra workers to more thoroughly vet the materials going through its facility and look for contaminants.

“The restrictions are very tough to meet,” said Brent Hildebrand, the vice president of recycling for Alpine Waste & Recycling. “In order to meet them, you have to slow your system is down, or we do, and also add labor to help process that material to make that quality.”

Each one of those steps costs time and money. Hildebrand said the facility also relies on new technology like a ballistic separator and optical sorting technology to help cut down on contamination. But with the amount of recycled materials passing through the facility each day, it’s impossible to catch every piece of garbage that’s mixed in.

“We even had some stuff come across our lines yesterday that caused us to be down for a couple of hours because it damaged our equipment,” Hildebrand said. “It’s a really big deal — let people know what’s acceptable and what is not acceptable in the recycling stream.”

Alpine Waste & Recycling accepts newspapers, office paper, bulk mail, cardboard, tin, aluminum and plastics 1-7. Other facilities in other counties may accept different items. However, complex recyclables like metals need to be taken to a dedicated facility and not tossed in a recycling bin with the rest of these materials.

The trick is teaching people what they can and cannot recycle, and where it goes.

“Eventually costs are going to go up if they don’t put the right stuff in the bin and it can become a critical point in this business,” Hildebrand said.

That cost could trickle down to consumers if too many contaminants are found in recycling bins.

Alpine Waste & Recycling ships about 40 percent of its materials abroad and Hildebrand said they are constantly looking for new places that will buy it, particularly in the United States.

But with so many recycling facilities trying to do the same thing, the price tag of the materials is being driven down.

Some states have resorted to throwing truckloads of recyclables into landfills because they can’t find a place to ship it.

“Luckily in Colorado, we haven’t had that issue at this point,” Kray said.

He is now focusing his energy on encouraging more American facilities to use recycled materials in order to build up the domestic market.

The second part of China’s new restrictions on international recyclables addresses the types of materials the country will still take. In January, it started banning 24 types of recyclables it had previously accepted.

“It’s various types of plastics, it’s mixed paper and sometimes scrap metal in electronics — various things that need some additional processing,” Kray said.

China is also requiring companies to sort through the different types of plastics beforehand, which passes the time, labor and cost down to recycling facilities.

For now, both Kray and Hildebrand encourage the public to go online to their city or county’s website and learn about the types of items they can and cannot.

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