With China’s National Sword policy now well established, and with the number of other Asian destinations for Western ‘recycling’ drastically diminished, the Solid Waste Association of North America has published a report which shows a 50% reduction in the revenues received from the sale of recyclables recovered through curbside recycling.
The first glimpse of what was to come came back in 2013 when China launched a temporary customs program called ‘Operation Green Fence’ aimed at improving its environmental footprint by reducing the imports of waste, and in particular contamination in recyclable materials.
Later, in 2017, China announced more stringent restrictions, known as National Sword, which banned the import of several recyclable materials from all countries – including mixed paper and mixed plastics on January 1, 2018. It also reduced the level of contamination in those scrap and recyclable materials not banned from import to 0.5% effective from March 1, 2018.
China also imposed tariffs on many recyclables from the United States, including cardboard, other recovered fibre, metals and plastics in August 2018. As China was a major purchaser of recyclable materials from North America and around the world, the National Sword policy resulted in a significant reduction in demand for these materials, as well as to the prices paid for them.
In addition, the extremely low new contamination limit of 0.5% forced managers of Materials Recycling Facilities (MRFs) that processed recyclables collected through municipal recycling programs to re-examine the sources and causes of contamination in their recovered materials.
This September, an important new report issued by the Solid Waste Association of North America’s (SWANA) Applied Research Foundation (ARF) provides a number of significant observations and insights regarding the impacts of China’s National Sword Policy on curbside recycling programs in the US and Canada and the resets that can be made to address them.
National Sword has contributed substantially to a 50% reduction in the revenues received from the sale of recyclables recovered through curbside recycling. In addition, it has resulted in increased processing costs and residue rates at material recovery facilities (MRFs).
“The China National Sword policy is providing recycling program managers with an opportunity to re-evaluate the costs, funding mechanisms and materials targeted by their curbside recycling programs in an effort to make them more sustainable and effective,” explains Jeremy O’Brien, P.E., SWANA’s Director of Applied Research.
The report, “Resetting Curbside Recycling Programs in the Wake of China,” presents several options that can be implemented to counter the impacts of China’s National Sword policy. One example would be to switch from a weekly to bi-weekly schedule for curbside recyclables collection.
According to David Biderman, SWANA’s Executive Director and CEO, this fall will be an active one on the recycling policy front, with the November release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s long-awaited national recycling framework and congressional activity on bills that would support recycling programs.
China’s National Sword policy underscores the need to address the high contamination levels of incoming single-stream recycling loads that are processed at MRFs. Contamination is costing curbside recycling programs over $1 billion per year on a national basis when additional collection and processing costs associated with contamination are considered.
However, the report also finds that while contamination has not been caused by National Sword, the need to clean up recyclable streams has been highlighted by the new restrictions.
An analysis of the collection and processing costs and current revenues associated with curbside recycling programs indicates that these programs cost homeowners about $6.85 per household per month when recyclables are collected on a weekly basis. The impact of the China National Sword policy on MRF recycling revenues and processing costs is estimated to account for $0.75 per household per month or about 11% of this cost.
“We expect municipal officials and other key recycling stakeholders will review the important data, conclusions and recommendations from this ARF report and incorporate them into their recycling programs,” concludes Biderman. “Local governments have several options that are preferable to dropping curbside recycling programs.”
* This article was originally published in the September/October print issue of Waste Management World magazine