The local implications of Chinese restrictions on recyclables
August 15, 2018 11:04 AM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – It’s happening again—recyclable materials in Albuquerque are piling up.
The city's residents are dutifully making the effort to go green by recycling what they can from their waste. But much of what is collected is sitting in bail stacks at a recycling plant on Edith.
To the City of Albuquerque’s credit, it improved recycling in a big way in 2011. Then-Mayor Richard Berry contracted out the responsibility, and the city agreed to collect recyclable materials and hand off what it collected to the contractor Friedman Recycling.
In 2013, Friedman opened a multimillion-dollar automated processing plant. Every day, dozens of workers tediously sort out the garbage from the recyclable materials while machines do the rest.
For a while, everything was running smoothly. But on January 1, China, the largest buyer of recyclable materials, imposed new environmental laws banning the import of many of those same materials.
“I'll be honest, we are very concerned,” said Matthew Whalen, director for the Solid Waste Department. “We are very concerned as a city, we are very concerned as a department. It's not just affecting Albuquerque or the State of New Mexico; it's affecting every state, every city and affecting every country that recycles.”
China made up about half of the clients of the world’s recyclable materials. Anything that is shipped to China must be at a 99.5 percent purity rate.
That means the bails cannot have any contaminants, such as food or other items that are not recyclable.
“A lot of recycling materials throughout the world, specifically here in in the U.S., specifically Friedman Recycling, is not set up to run at 99.5 percent purity,” said Friedman Recycling President Morris Friedman. “In order to get that, in order to ship to one of the largest markets in the world, we had to slow down our equipment, we had to add additional labor and, on top of that additional labor, we had to add a completely entire shift.”
With China essentially closing its doors on the industry, other markets around the world quickly became oversaturated with recyclables, dropping unit prices in the process.
A year ago, a ton of material would sell for about $150. That same ton today is selling on the world market for half that or, in some cases, nothing at all.
Yet Friedman remains hopeful for the future.
“There is still a need for the material,” he said. “It's just now trying to find a place to put it. We're going to see manufacturing pulling out of China and going into other countries, and then eventually those markets will develop again.”
Eager recyclers hope what they throw out may one day come to them in a new form. With China removing its stake, the industry must now figure out how it will come back in a new form.
Updated: August 15, 2018 11:04 AM
Created: August 14, 2018 10:00 PM
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