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How China's Import Ban Is Affecting Mid-Missouri Recycling

Aluminum cans are sorted and processed into bales at the Material Recovery Facility in Columbia, Missouri on April 10, 2019. The MRF collected, sorts and processes recyclable materials before shipping them off to domestic and foreign mills.

A decline in the recycling market is forcing mid-Missouri waste management companies to rethink their current methods.

Ben Kreitner, waste minimization coordinator for the City of Columbia, said many American cities adopted single-stream recycling around 2010. Cities made the switch to increase consumer participation in recycling by making it more convenient. However, China’s ban on contaminated recyclables may make dual-stream recycling the way of the future, said Kendra Kemp, manager of a recycling center in Jefferson City. 

Single-stream recycling means all recyclables are dumped in one bin to be sorted later at a recycling center. Dual-stream recycling separates recyclables into two categories: containers, or glass, metal and plastics, and fibers, or paper and cardboard.

Although single-stream recycling has been labeled as the convenient method for consumers, that convenience has a significant price for recycling companies.

Credit KBIA
Shredded paper moves through a conveyer belt and is dumped into a pile at Federal International Recycling Center in Jefferson City, Missouri on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. Federal International receives recyclable materials from collection companies and then ships them off to sorting companies. Following China's restrictions on recyclable imports, the center has found that it's becoming more expensive to process materials.

China’s 2018 National Sword policy banned specific recyclables with more than 0.5% contamination. The average contamination rate of recyclables at the curb is 25%, according to a Waste Management press release.

The amount of contamination found in certain recyclables has caused concern for China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. The ministry, which focuses on limiting pollution in China, found that large amounts of dirty or hazardous waste was mixed in with recyclables that could be reused. The ban has caused recycling commodity prices to drop, with particular declines in products of single-stream recycling. 

In Cole County, Republic Services discontinued its single-stream recycling service in St. Martins, Wardsville, Taos and Russellville. St. Martins City Administrator Doug Reece said Republic Services stopped all recycling services in St. Martins on April 1.

Reece said Republic Services could have charged households $11 per month. The city didn’t pursue the new deal because of a lack of interest from the community, Reece said. Republic Services will still offer the same trash collection services to these cities, but curbside recycling is just not worth the cost in rural towns.

The issue is not limited to just rural towns in Cole County. Srinivasan Raghavan, sustainability professor at the University of Missouri, said communities across the country are being forced to dump recyclables in landfills.

“It has seriously hurt recycling companies here in the U.S. to the point where they’re unable to sell their waste plastic, especially some of the smaller towns,” Raghavan said.

Kreitner said Columbia is rather unique, owning its own landfill, recycling facility, compost operation and collection services. Residents are required to use Columbia’s services, and most businesses use the city’s services. Kreitner said he doesn’t have to worry about meeting the bottom line as much as private recycling companies.

Federal International Recycling and Waste Solutions sorts and bales recyclables from businesses and collection companies like Republic Services.

Kendra Kemp, vice president of Midwest operations at Federal International, is in charge of the facility in Jefferson City.

“If you can keep the stuff moving out of your facility, you’re doing fairly well because movement is even a problem now,” Kemp said. "A year ago, movement was no issue.”

Kemp said the market crash of recyclable commodities has caused an overflow of certain materials. It’s caused a lot of recycling centers to sit on commodities for months until they can find a buyer.

Kreitner said he had been waiting on a buyer for plastics since May 2018 and only recently found a buyer in Ontario, Canada, last month.

Single-stream recycling has been disadvantageous for recycling centers looking to sell recyclables. With the current recycling market favoring clean and sorted materials, single-stream recyclables from residents don’t meet the needs of the market and are either collecting dust or being thrown into landfills.

St. Martins is still looking for short-term solutions for recycling.

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