New county task force, island group, focus on recycling with Chinese ban in effect

In the wake of China’s ban on certain types of recycling imports, King County has created a task force in an effort to both improve recycling in the area and to come up with possible solutions to some of the issues local recycling services now face. Closer to home, Zero Waste Vashon is taking things one step further by focusing on source-driven solutions.

“The bottom line is, keep recycling,” said Jeff Gaisford, Recycling and Environmental Services Manager for King County’s Solid Waste division. “No matter what you hear, it’s still the right thing to do. There are things we need to work through, and things we can do to make it better, but don’t stop recycling.”

Gaisford said that the task force, which includes representatives from cities and solid waste haulers in the area, will be working closely with the state’s Department of Ecology and will focus on immediate, mid- and long-term mitigation of the disruption to recycling efforts caused by the Chinese ban.

As The Beachcomber and other news outlets reported in October of last year, China, the world’s largest market for recyclables, implemented a ban on 24 types of solid waste imports, including the plastic and mixed paper products most commonly shipped from the United States, due to contamination issues. A significant percentage of the recyclables it was receiving were unfit for processing because they weren’t clean, there was un-recyclable material mixed in, or, in the case of mixed paper, it was wet.

And while there are other markets in other countries for some of this banned material, contrary to some recent media reports, they are not big enough to make this a non-issue.

“China recycled 50 percent of the world’s waste paper,” Gaisford said. “And now they’re not. So we’re having to find alternatives, but there is no way to find enough to replace what we’re losing in China.”

Replacing that lost market will be one solution that the new task force dives in to, as far as how to encourage locally-based buyers.

Zero Waste Vashon, on the other hand, while still working closely with King County, is focused on the root of the problem: the products themselves, going straight to the manufacturers and producers.

“Figuring out what to do with all of our waste will always be an issue if we don’t deal with the heart of the matter,” Zero Waste Vashon’s Will Lockwood said. “In this country, we have allowed manufacturers to put the costs and solutions to the problem on the tax payers. In Europe, it’s the other way round. The bigger problem here is political.”

About this point, islander Gib Dammann, a member of the King County Solid Waste Advisory Committee as well as Zero Waste Vashon, added: “The government and industry folks will tell you that it’s consumer driven, that we are driving the production and use of all of the waste, and it’s time to call that BS. Consumers did not pick seven different types of plastic that need to be recycled — it’s time for the manufacturers to step up.”

However, both agree that simply banning the use/production of certain types of products, such as single-use plastics, like straws, is not the answer.

“Other countries have banned single-use plastics, India, for example, and the UK recently banned plastic straws,” Lockwood said. “But we need to work with all share-holders. We need solutions. It’s just not workable to say ‘ban it!’ and be done.”

Some examples of what this might look like come from a brewery in Florida that sells its beer in cans, which are completely recyclable, according to Dammann and Lockwood, and uses seaweed-based “plastic” ring holders, which break down completely so as not to pose a threat to ocean life or add to the plastic garbage heap currently taking over our oceans. Other examples include bags made in Indonesia that break down rapidly into non-plastic components, and disposable and rapidly broken down plates and utensils, created by Polish farmers from their wheat bran by-products.

“There are truly solutions,” Dammann said. “There are some companies working on these solutions that there are so many different directions to go. And we as a community need to lead toward that. We need a facility for leading toward that. We need a composting facility on the island so that we can tell manufacturers that we’d prefer they bring organic material to Vashon. … Then our waste stream becomes primarily organic, and that’s the vehicle by which we can adjust our economy to help this change take place.”

Aside from composting being a goal of Zero Waste Vashon’s for some time, it was the message that came across loud and clear from the community meeting the organization held last fall.

“Composting is really a big desire of islanders,” Lockwood said. “That was made very clear at that meeting. And we’re working with the county to make this happen.”

Citing a good working relationship with the county, both Dammann and Lockwood came back to the more immediate issues at hand, and reinforced what individuals can all do now to help with the current recycling crisis.

“We’re working on a ‘bring your own’ campaign,” Dammann said. “Like taking your own mug or thermos to the coffee stand and promoting the use of things like Japanese bento boxes for lunches. Encouraging less use of disposable items in general.”

Gaisford noted while there were a couple of recycling processors that had requested waivers to dump unmarketable recyclables into landfills, most cities that gave waivers set end dates that have since passed. The few that did not set any limits will be addressed by the new task force.

“It has happened. We know that some paper has ended up in landfills since the ban took effect in January,” he said. “But we also know that it went there because it was unfit for recycling, it was wet and therefore unmarketable. So our job right now as consumers is to keep recycling, but make sure everything is clean, dry, and that you put a lid on any containers holding paper. Do not stop recycling.”

The emphasis, he said, in the short-term, is on quality.

“Our problems won’t fix themselves, that’s why we created the task force,” he added. “To get the word out about proper recycling, but also to figure out how we move forward from here.”

As far as Dammann is concerned, it’s up communities like Vashon to lead the way.

“We need to make the creators accountable. Other nations have figured it out, but for us it’s like trying to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “We need to look to ourselves and encourage innovation. But until we set up examples of what works and what doesn’t, it won’t happen.”

Anyone interested in keeping up with the new county task force may attend Solid Waste Advisory Committee meetings, or see minutes from the meetings posted at www.kingcounty.gov/depts/dnrp/solid-waste/about/advisory-committees/swac.aspx.

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