China has practically closed its doors to all incoming recyclable materials, forcing shipping prices to skyrocket and affecting local ratepayers. Photo by Tiani Grosso.

China has practically closed its doors to all incoming recyclable materials, forcing shipping prices to skyrocket and affecting local ratepayers. Photo by Tiani Grosso.

Recycling rates rise on the Plateau

Sumner, Bonney Lake, and Buckley will be seeing rate increases in July, with Black Diamond’s service provider also looking to raise their rates.

Local cities are facing recycling rate increases after China announced a policy ultimatum at the start of 2017.

Bonney Lake and Sumner will see a rate increase of 8.3 percent next month, and we may see more increases later on.

While 8.3 percent seems large, it will only amount to a couple dollars for residential service.

The Sumner City Council passed a resolution to approve the 8.3 percent increase at its meeting June 4.

This will result in a $2.28 monthly increase for average Sumner residents, or $27.36 a year.

At the June 12 meeting, the Bonney Lake City Council approved its rate increase after about a month of discussions.

The average Bonney Lake resident will be paying $2.13 more a month for recycling, or $25.56 extra a year. The most frequently utilized commercial service level will see an increase of $11.79 a month.

DM Disposal recommended the Buckley City Council raise their recycling rates by 10.9 percent, but the city decided to raise its rates by 7.5 percent during the June 19 meeting and absorb the rest. For residents with a 32 gallon recycling bin, the new rate will rise from $28.11 a month to $30.22 a month, a $2.11 increase.

All cities serviced by DM Disposal will see these rate rise July 1.

It’s not just Pierce County cities that are starting to feel pressure.

According to Kate Griffith, a spokeswoman for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, Black Diamond may see a surcharge of 54 cents in its service provided by Republic Services. The surcharge is being discussed and may be approved during the commissions public meeting on June 28; if approved, the surcharge would last six months or until Republic’s next general rate case.

This leaves Enumclaw, which collects its own garbage and recycling, as the only city on the Plateau whose residents are not being hit by rising rates, said City Administrator Chris Searcy.

Whether or not these rises in rates are a one time deal or are only the first of many to come is uncertain.

“Unfortunately, we cannot make predictions with regard to the future state of the recycling markets,” said DM Disposal Regional Manager Josh Metcalf in an interview. “The current state of the recycling markets are uncharted territory for all. Our hope is that the markets remain stable, which will produce stability in collection rates.”

A MARKET IN CHAOS

During a May 15 Bonney Lake City Council meeting, Metcalf explained to the council that a new Chinese policy called “National Sword” is the reason behind rising recycling rates.

Up until recently, “China had the largest global demand for recyclable material by far,” Metcalf said, adding that almost 80 percent of the U.S.’s recyclables were shipped to China to be processed.

However, he said between 5 to 10 percent of all those materials were in some way contaminated with non-recyclable materials, human waste, clothing, and food.

“That’s the biggie, is food contamination,” Metcalf said. “A great example of that may be something like your pizza box, it looks like cardboard, any reasonable person outside the industry might believe it’s cardboard, but the cheeses, the oils, the remnants of mushrooms and tomatoes are actually food contamination.”

Recycling processing centers (also known as material recovery facilities, or MRFs), don’t clean recyclables — they just separate what can and can’t be recycled. Historically, a small amount of contamination was allowed, but China is no longer interested in dealing with other country’s waste.

“Roughly a year ago, China put the world on notice that they no longer wish to serve as the world’s landfill,” said Metcalf. “They said that effective January 1, 2018, they would not allow material into the country that was more than 0.5 percent contaminated.”

In addition to this new stringent criteria, China also outright banned 24 kinds of solid waste, including mixed paper.

These new policies started a domino effect; prices for shipping recyclable materials overseas skyrocketed, affecting everything down the line from international shippers to local ratepayers, said Pioneer Recycling operator Steve Frank.

Pioneer has two MRF facilities in Pierce County, and receives recyclables from DM Disposal.

But it’s not simply a matter of removing waste from the recycling — it’s being able to hit that nearly impossible goal of 0.5 percent contamination.

“Most of us as MRF operators, we’ve done everything we can short-term, including slow down the equipment and hire more sorters,” Frank said, adding that they’ve grown their manual workforce by roughly 15 percent and slowed the line speed down from processing 25 tons of materials in an hour to 20 tons, all of which increases the price of bringing in materials dramatically. “And now we’re investing in new technology — optical sorters, robots. But can we realistically get down to 0.5 percent and stay there and withstand the 100 percent scrutiny that’s going on in China? And the other matter is, is it worth the risk?”

That risk Frank mentions is when China inspects samples of the materials that enters its ports. If the sample is more than 0.5 percent contaminated, the whole shipment is rejected and sent back to the U.S. at a huge expense.

“It’s an incredibly risky proposition right now. None of us, even if we thought we could do 0.5 percent, want to take the risk. One container rejected is going to cost about $5,000,” Frank said, and a whole rejected shipment could cost companies $100,000.

So instead of taking that risk, shippers now go to other, smaller markets, even though they’re more expensive, Metcalf said. But those markets don’t nearly have the capacity for the supply that’s coming in, which wreaks havoc on pricing.

“A year ago, I was selling [mixed paper] $100 a ton,” Frank said. “Today, I’m paying $20 to $30 bucks a ton for a customer to take it. We export about a million and a half tons of recycled paper every month.” Before this whole mess happened, 1 million tons a month went to China, and a half a million went to the rest of the world. Now that million tons is in peril, and it’s trying to find homes in that half a million rest of the world. That math is very scary.”

Eventually, Frank guesses, the “rest of the world” — India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and others — will eventually catch up to take on the supply of materials being sent their way, but that’s a multi-year fix, and not something that can happen in a month or two.

Meanwhile, some MRFs around the country are starting to reach capacity, while others are starting to stretch at the seams.

In Oregon, Frank said, MRFs have asked the Department of Environmental Quality to be able to send recyclable materials straight to the landfill if they run out of space.

“There’s about 2,000 tons a month right now going to the landfill,” he added. “There’s not enough sorting capacity, because we’ve all slowed down to process it all.”

According to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, more than 10,000 tons of recyclable materials have been disposed of between Oct. 1 and April 30, 2017. However, this equates to less than 2 percent of all recyclable materials collected in the state.

Washington is starting to face the same issue, though Department of Ecology spokesman Andrew Wineke said the state isn’t keeping track of how many tons are being sent to landfills, and that these occurrences are happening on a local level.

A late March article in the Seattle Times said Republic Services, Black Diamond’s service provider, has sent “hundreds of tons” of mixed paper to landfills since China’s new policies were announced.

At the moment, Frank said he’s not sending any recyclables to a landfill. However, both his MRFs reached capacity in February 2017, with one facility processing roughly 10,000 tons of materials a month at full shifts; another upset to the market could send recyclables from Buckley, Bonney Lake and Sumner straight to the dump.

Jackie Lang, a spokeswoman for Waste Management (which takes recyclables from Enumclaw and Black Diamond to its MRFs) said Waste Management has also started seeing “some occasional delays and backlogs” in her company’s MRFs, though she stressed that’s due to delays in shipping, and Waste Management’s MRFs are still processing recyclable materials in a timely manner.

Brad Lovaas, the executive director of the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association — an organization that represents numerous service providers in the state — has been keeping track how the state as a whole is being affected by National Sword.

“We’re seeing the shoe continue to fall,” he said in a phone interview. “China was the biggest consumer of these materials, and they’ve all but closed their doors. Now you have our facilities, you’re starting to see the backup. It’s happening in shipping, we don’t have as many ships going to those alternative locations as we did to China, the [MRFs] are starting to fill up because there’s a world-wide glut, particularly of paper, that’s being collected every day.”

But not everything is bad news, Lovaas added.

“We’re well off in this state — we have some of the biggest MRFs in the nation, some of the more sophisticated MRFs in the nation,” he said. “We’re fortunate, because we’ve made a lot of investment into recycling, and will continue to make investments into recycling.”

RECYCLING TIPS

Part of the solution could be to increase the domestic market for recyclable materials while other countries do the same, but those are years-long projects.

In the meantime, local residents can start making an impact immediately, Frank.

“This is the time, if there ever was the time, to clean up the supply chain,” Frank said. “It’s time to really focus on improving the quality of the blue bin.”

Luckily for DM Disposal customers — and others who want to learn more about what can and can’t be recycled — there’s an app for that.

Murrey’s DM Disposal free app, which can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play store, includes pickup schedule information, reminders for pickup days, and, maybe most importantly, information about recycling for both King and Pierce County.

The app has a search function for anyone who has questions about whether an item should be recycled or tossed in the trash.

Whether glass containers can be recycled or not depends on where you live. In Pierce County, glass bottles are jars should be dropped of at specific locations to be recycled, and not mixed in with other materials. In King County, glass can be mixed in, so long as it’s not broken.

Newspapers, wrapping paper, and some other non-food related paper products can be recycled if not wet. However, while shredded paper can be recycled, it must be placed in a paper (not plastic) bag with the top rolled down to be properly processed. Other paper products like foil, wrapping paper and wax paper need to be chucked.

Like glass containers, metals cans should be rinsed and their tops disposed of, and aluminum foil (not food contaminated) can be recycled, but not aerosol cans or wire hangers.

Lang said Waste Management’s biggest issue is plastic shopping bags.

“Some people do a great job recycling all week, and then they put the material in a plastic bag and put it in the [bin],” Lang said. “That whole bag is very likely going to end up in the garbage.”

And don’t even bother trying to recycle used clothes or diapers (Frank gets way more than he’d like) — either donate, or in the case of diapers, just toss.

More information can be found online at https://kingcounty.gov/depts/dnrp/solid-waste/garbage-recycling/recycling/recycling-quick-guide.aspx and https://www.co.pierce.wa.us/4665/Advanced-Recycling-Info.

But the best rule of thumb, Lovaas says, is “sometimes by doing a little less, you’re actually doing a little more. If in doubt, throw it out.”

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