Recycling is expected to grow more expensive and perhaps more limited in the coming months.
That’s because China, which now accepts two-thirds of the entire world’s recyclable materials, will be stepping almost entirely out of the global market.
Exactly how that will affect Yakima Valley residents remains to be seen, but here and across the nation, there could be fundamental changes in what kinds of waste can be recycled.
For years, goods have been shipped from China to the United States, and in those same shipping containers, recyclables were sent back.
But National Sword, a Chinese initiative to protect its environment and public health by limiting the recycled goods it buys from other nations, will change that starting in 2018.
Washington, which recycles nearly half of its waste and sends the majority of it to China, along with Oregon and California, will be hit particularly hard because of their trade relationships with China, according to the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association, which represents the state’s solid waste handlers in the U.S. and abroad.
In Yakima, opinions are mixed on what effect China’s initiative will have locally. Without a ready market, some materials could be dropped from recycling programs. That happened to glass years ago, when some collectors stopped accepting it because it was no longer economically viable.
Prices headed up, and there’s no slack at home
There’s general agreement that prices will rise, but how much and for how long is unknown.
“I think what this means for us is recycling is not and has never been free. But it’s a great opportunity for the domestic market (for recyclables) to expand,” said city of Yakima refuse and recycling manager Loretta Zammarchi.
This summer, China told the World Trade Organization it will stop accepting 24 categories of waste, including unsorted paper and some plastics.
“China is saying number one, they have a better economy so they have their own products to recycle,” said Yakima County Public Services solid waste program coordinator Mikal Heintz. “Also, our products are just too dirty.”
And the U.S. doesn’t have the manufacturing capabilities to pick up the slack, she said.
“There were more domestic markets (years ago), but the Chinese demand swung up and took those commodities,” said Andy Wineke, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology.
As a result, collectors are researching ways to better process and separate the materials, while state and national organizations are looking for ways to encourage new manufacturers.
But even with these changes, the reality is recycling is becoming more expensive. And that change is already being felt in Yakima.
Basin Disposal of Yakima operations manager Booker Nagely said recently cardboard profits dropped from $135 per ton to $55 per ton.
That’s without processing fees or penalties for dirty or wet cardboard.
“Let’s say it costs $45 a ton to process it. That means you’re only going to get $10 a ton and that’s if it’s good, clean, dry cardboard,” he said. But if it’s not, he could be left paying someone to take the cardboard, instead of getting even a small amount or money back.
Less money made, but cheaper production
But even companies whose recycled products aren’t shipped abroad are seeing the change.
Josh Williamson, who works for Michelsen Packaging Company, which runs Central Washington Recycling, said the products the company collects go to the U.S. or Canada. But because of the influx of recyclables into domestic markets, prices have plummeted.
“When we’re selling products to the mills, all those prices got drastically reduced,” he said. “But on the flip side, for the stuff we make (from recyclables), the cost of materials got cheaper.”
But Zammarchi said the industry will make it through. And these changes prompt new conversations about waste.
“It’s not the 1990s where you could make a lot of money,” she said. “Those days are gone and I think China is making that perfectly clear. But the other part is to have that dialogue that not everything is recyclable.”
Refuse and Recycling Association officials say residents should first reread information from their recycling company to determine what they can recycle and then, “when in doubt, throw it out.”
Not all plastic can be recycled, neither can cardboard used to package certain foods, such as pizza.
And there’s still more to do.
According to a waste composition study conducted in 2015, 12 percent of the trash received at the Terrace Heights landfill is plastic, while 18.1 percent is paper. Other recyclables, such as metals, electronics and hazardous waste make up another 9 percent of the waste.
Countywide, Yakima receives 250,000 tons of trash each year, but officials believe if every household recycled, that number could be halved.
Heintz says that includes less commonly recycled items such as paint, batteries and appliances.
“Recycling is still the right thing to do,” Wineke said. “We just have to be a bit better educated and a bit better informed (about what can be recycled) to make sure we’re maximizing that.”
But he also emphasized the other two points to the triangle: Reduce and reuse.
“We beat the drum about this day and night. Reduce is the key thing,” Wineke said. “If you can avoid the need to create a new product in the first place, you never need to worry about recycling and it’s way more efficient.”
That could mean using reusable grocery bags, calling to cancel junk mail, buying in bulk and avoiding individually wrapped items.
“It’s not the first time the industry has gone through this, but it’ll make it through,” Zammarchi said.