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.

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