Rural and small-town residents are starting to get squeezed by a change that is wreaking havoc on the global recycling market. Hannibal, Missouri, population 18,000, has stopped accepting recyclable plastics labeled with the numbers 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7, such as yogurt containers and shampoo bottles. Villages near Erie, Pennsylvania, no longer take glass. And in Columbia County, New York, nestled in the Hudson Valley, residents soon will have to pay $50 a year to dump their materials at one of the county’s recycling centers.
China, for decades the world’s largest importer of waste paper, used plastic and scrap metal, last year stopped accepting certain kinds of recyclables and tightened its standards for impurities in scrap bales. In making the changes, China’s Ministry of Environment Protection cited environmental damage caused by “dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes” mixed in with solid waste that can be recycled into raw materials.
Many Americans now have access to single-stream recycling, which spares them the trouble of sorting and separating plastics, paper, glass and metal. But single-stream recycling has created headaches for Chinese processors. Even after sorting at a U.S. recycling facility, a plastic container might make it into a shipment of tin cans. Glass breaks, and shards are mixed in with pieces of paper.
The industry standard for contamination typically ranges between 1 and 5 percent. Under the new policy, China’s standard is 0.5 percent. “They didn’t just change the policies, they radically changed the entire world market in one fell swoop,” said Joe Greer, director of sales for Buffalo Recycling Enterprises, which accepts recyclables from a number of small towns along Lake Erie.
Recyclers have stockpiled certain materials while they look for buyers. Some types of scraps have declined in value, while others have become worthless. Many large cities have just absorbed the losses, fearing that passing on the cost to residents would discourage recycling. Small towns can’t bear that financial burden.
Instead, they’ve had to scale back the types of recyclables they accept or have started charging fees to cover the ballooning costs of their programs. The result is a growing disparity between the recycling services available to city dwellers and those for rural and small-town residents. “Rural communities have this challenge of very small volume, and the cost of collecting and transporting something of very low value in the market is going to exceed that value,” said Susan Robinson, a senior policy director with Houston-based Waste Management, the largest waste collection company in North America.
Small-town recycling programs already are more expensive than those in bigger cities. Houses tend to be farther apart, making collection more expensive. Rural communities spend more to transport their recyclables to centers that can find markets. And they cannot produce the volume of material that buyers want.
Hannibal, like many small towns, never made much money from lower-quality plastics, such as Nos. 3 through 7. Those containers are composed of a blend of plastics and other materials that don’t break down easily. And buyers tend to want truckloads of the stuff — more than a place such as Hannibal can provide.