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Impact Of China Policy On Recycling In San Diego County

March 18, 2019 1:15 p.m.

GUEST: Joshua Emerson Smith, environment reporter, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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Related Story: Impact Of China Policy On Recycling In San Diego County


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

China, two years ago cut back on recycled solid waste it buys from Western countries. It also tightened standards on how much contamination that allows among recycled goods. This has had a significant impact on cities large and small across the United States including here in San Diego County. Joining me is Joshua Emerson Smith environment reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune. Welcome Joshua. Good to be here.

So start with what recyclables are now banned by China certain types of plastic and cheaper plastics and mixed paper so about two dozen specific items altogether. But it really kind of just boils down to the the junk mail that you just throw into the bin mindlessly or the like the plastic bottles the single use plastic water bottles that are cheaply made.

And they've tightened down on the contaminated contaminants allowed. That is.

That's right. That's a big piece of it right. So where they used to just take any materials even if there was trash or food mixed in with it. Now they're saying only half a percent contamination is what they'll what they'll accept. And in California on average we have roughly 25 percent contamination in the city of San Diego it's something like 15 percent of the material is contaminated by weight.

So the amount of contaminated goods was reduced what was it reduced from the industry standard for contamination with somewhere between 1 and 5 percent.

So that's when these sorting and marketing companies here in California are trying to sell to processors overseas.

They say well somewhere between 1 and 5 percent of everything that you're taking will be trash or non recyclable items. Now China saying only half a percent that's what they want.

So so it's a big deal now. How has China's ban affected prices on commonly recycled goods like cardboard and mixed paper etc..

You know I don't want to weigh in too definitively on that because I'm not an economist but we do know there is a correlation. We do know that prices which fluctuate I want to say have dropped for certain items but there's a lot of reasons for that. But we are seeing decline in what recycling the sorting and marketing companies can get for things like mixed paper and cheap plastic.

And that affects the revenue collected by the city of San Diego for recycled goods for example. Right.

Right. So the city of San Diego has a contract with sorting and marketing companies. So the city collects all of the recycling from your blue Brett bean and then drops it off at the sorting facilities and then there they try to get that 25 percent contamination rate down to something that will be acceptable and they have people along conveyor belts picking off trash and different items that don't belong in the recycling everything from clothes to bowling balls to electronics right. And then they go and sell that material. They find processors all about 80 percent of those processors are overseas largely in Asia and the money that they get from selling the materials they share with the city.

And so the less money that the sorting and marketing companies get the less money the city gets.

Okay. And what generally should residents know about what's good to recycle and what should be thrown in the trash. In other words what stuff is commonly recycled that should not be.

So check with your city because they can. These these lists can vary by municipality but common things that are thrown in recycling bins that shouldn't be there are plastic utensils and clothes is a big one. Food containers that are not properly washed out candy bar wrappers that kind of thing. So definitely check with your your city and most cities now they're very aware of the idea that that this these materials these recycled materials need to be cleaned up and the contamination rates lowered. So they all have public campaigns to try to inform voters a little bit of googling will get you the list of things that should go in the blue bin and the things that definitely should not.

Okay. In recycling contractors are are complaining they're having trouble finding processing plants to take the materials but but this can vary from city to city right.

That's right. Small towns with small sorting and marketing companies have had in some places have had a hard time transitioning during the China ban. Some there's 10 articles in The New York Times and various other publications talking about several dozen cities throughout the country that have you know had to scale back or get rid of their recycling programs altogether because they were getting too expensive. Larger cities and coastal areas in California have been able to absorb the cost of this so far and are continuing. But there is a concern that if we don't get these contamination levels down that we'll be missing out on crucial revenue for our recycling programs.

I found it interesting in your story recyclers didn't want to talk to you and some city officials or some observers are saying or recycling contractors are exaggerating the shrinking market to get better contracts with the cities. Is that part of this too.

Yeah you know I was surprised to find that out. Well first I was surprised that the recycling companies the sorting and marketing companies were so reluctant to talk but some of the industry watchers people who've been looking at this for a long time said Hey everyone needs to calm down China will start accepting these materials again but what won't change they said is these new standards for contamination. So everyone needs to do a better job of cleaning up these restrict recycling streams. And as cities renegotiate these contracts with the recycling companies the concern is that the recycling companies are blowing this whole thing out of proportion to get a better deal a better deal on the revenue sharing contracts.

Now I don't know if that's true or not and the fact that the recycling companies wouldn't talk definitely raises some questions but that's where we're at.

Well and all this has led to conversations locally about reducing waste overall right.

That's right. This is the big takeaway that you hear from everyone who's in the recycling world and from the state especially members of the legislature talking about hey look it's not only that they're recycling needs to be cleaner but we just need to be throwing out less stuff overall. We need to have less single use plastics right. We've seen bans on plastic bags on plastic straws. Right. So just because something is recyclable or just because something is plastic doesn't mean it gets recycled. A lot of this stuff ends up in the landfill anyway.

So reducing the overall amount of trash we produce is really the goal in the end.

OK. Well I've been speaking to Joshua Emerson Smith These are the environment reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune. Thanks Joshua. Always a pleasure.