Organics and the China ban on recyclables

It is not news that China’s 2017 National Sword policy and its 2018 ban on mixed paper/mixed plastic imports are forcing U.S. local governments and private industry to rethink how recycling is performed.

In practical terms, recyclables are raw materials to be used by a manufacturer. The recyclable materials that China was receiving from the U.S. contained contamination (i.e., trash) mixed in with the recyclable materials. Since manufacturers cannot use contaminated raw material, China was required to remove the contamination. As a result, China banned the import of mixed plastics and mixed paper.

After the China ban was implemented in 2018, India then emerged as one of the largest importers of recyclable plastic. Hence, India’s March 6, 2019, ban on plastic import due to its lack of sufficient infrastructure to process the new quantity of materials has added more stress to recycling programs in the U.S.

The impact of these bans is forcing the U.S. to change its focus to quality of recyclables rather than quantity of recyclables, as is evident by widespread use by localities of the “If in doubt, throw it out!” slogan.

Breaking the quantity mentality is filled with challenges. Currently, every state must continue to achieve the EPA-established recycling rate of 35 per cent (with exceptions based on population). American Material Recycling Facilities (MRFs) that process curbside recyclables consistently meet quantity requirements, but struggle with consistent quality. This is mostly due to the fact that their suppliers are the common public who collectively lack the discipline of the much smaller universe of virgin raw material suppliers and industrial scrap dealers.

Additionally, the rise of mandated recycling by EPA destroyed the equilibrium between supply and demand that controlled the prices for which the raw materials (i.e., recyclables) would sell. For years, recyclables have flooded the market, regardless of the demand for them.

With limited markets for the abundant quantity of recyclable materials, localities are evaluating fee increases to citizens to make up for revenue shortfalls or pay for decontamination of materials and/or increasing public outreach to citizens to reduce the contamination of recyclables.

Simultaneously, regulators and legislators are evaluating the need to reduce the mandatory recycling goals or to relax their enforcement. The good news is that EPA is not opposed to shifting the recycling priority from quantity to quality.

Yet, there is a trend in the U.S. that localities should take notice of: the banning of organic food waste from landfills. To date, six states have organic food waste bans in place: California, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York.

These bans are not focused on individual households, but rather on large producers of food waste: cafeterias, hospitals, universities, grocery stores, and restaurants. In 2014, Massachusetts banned hospitals, universities and large businesses from sending food waste to landfills. During the same year, a law was passed in California requiring businesses to recycle their organic waste on and after April 1, 2016. Most recently, in April 2019, New York passed a law requiring diversion of organic food waste from certain businesses that becomes effective on January 1, 2022.

The impetus that has driven this legislation has been the drive to reduce the production of greenhouse gases. Rather than being landfilled and contributing to the release of greenhouse gases in the form of methane, organic food waste can be composted (an aerobic process that does not produce methane) or used in anaerobic digestors. Anaerobic digestors produce a biogas that is mostly methane and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide can be removed, leaving only methane, which is the primary component of natural gas. The solid material that is left after anaerobic digestion occurs is called digestate, which is nutrient-rich and can be used as fertilizer for crops.

If EPA does not relax the recycling rate, then states and localities may be looking to organic food waste bans as the means by which to achieve the mandated rate. That being said, there are many new challenges posed by banning organic food waste from landfills, the biggest of which is enforcement. The bottom line is that while a ban on organic food waste may not be coming to your location soon, it is a trend that should not be ignored.


 Jenny Johnson, Director of Waste & Recycling, LaBella Associates