China’s crackdown on imported scrap paper and plastics is about to shake up the global market, and it will likely bring major changes to Silicon Valley’s local recycling programs.
By the start of 2018, China intends to ban imports of 24 types of papers and plastics as part of a militantly titled “National Sword” campaign to reduce contamination and build its own recycling systems. Beijing detailed the plan to the World Trade Organization over the summer, which prompted fears that an influx of leftover recycling scraps will pile up in U.S. landfills.
San Jose’s Environmental Services Department has been in talks with the city’s recycling contractors about how to deal with the effect of China’s toughening-up on import standards. It’s unclear how the ban will impact local landfill diversion requirements, but the city is now assessing regulatory challenges over storing and stockpiling additional recyclables in case of a market slowdown.
National Sword will have an outsized impact on California, which ships about 60 percent of its recyclables to China, according to a memo authored by San Jose’s Environmental Services director Kerrie Romanow. More scrupulous inspections have already slowed exports, she wrote, prompting a call throughout the West Coast for consumers to reduce waste and recycle correctly.
San Jose’s recycling processors are telling the city that the value of some exported scraps has fallen to the point that they’re making little to no profit, a shift that follows a gradual price increase of the past few years. Revenue this year is on track to surpass that of 2016, but it’s unclear how the Chinese ban will affect the bottom line in 2018.
This past spring, the City Council directed the environmental services division to renegotiate its four residential solid waste contracts. National Sword now stands to dramatically change the terms of those agreements. Romanow said the city has to figure out whether the market uncertainty should be reflected in customer rate structures and program design or performance metrics, such as the contractor’s landfill diversion rate and public outreach requirements.
Romanow plans to deliver a status report on the negotiations to the council in early 2018.
An upside to the import ban is that it could force U.S. consumers to think twice about what they toss in their recycling bins. San Jose took significant strides to cut waste thanks to a plastic bag ban passed in 2012 and a polystyrene ban in 2014, and the Environmental Services Department is exploring more ways to get people to curb the amount of junk they throw away. One idea being bandied about is an outreach campaign to cut back on junk.
Meanwhile, a subcommittee of the Santa Clara County Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission has earmarked $100,000 for a two-year consulting contract to work on sustainability initiatives throughout the South Bay.
At the state level, San Jose is in discussion with CalRecycle about how to shape a policy for all of California to reduce the amount of packaging that ends up in the waste stream.