Islanders recycle by bringing material such as cardboard, glass and plastic bottles to the transfer station. But the efforts may be in vain as a proposed ban from China on importing waste means recyclables could end up in landfills. (Anneli Fogt/File Photo)

Zero Waste Vashon holds forum amid China ban on foreign waste

As many islanders are wheeling their shiny, new blue co-mingle bins out to the curb, Zero Waste Vashon — the group largely responsible for the new receptacles — is planning a community forum for Saturday in an effort to brainstorm ways to further reduce waste. In the face of what appears to be a looming global recycling crisis, the event comes at a critical time for the industry — and the planet.

“The idea is for us to tap into the incredible community that we are a part of. So many with so much expertise and experience,” Julia Lakey, Zero Waste Vashon (ZWV) board member said. “We want to see what ideas people have that could guide our work. We are a hard working board — every project we take on, someone rolls up their sleeves and gets working.”

And with projects such as Waste to Gardens with the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank, the yard- and food-waste pilot program at the transfer station and those big blue bins under its belt, the group appears to be well on its way to living up to its name.

But despite ZWV’s efforts, oceans are still filling with plastic and landfills are quickly running out of space. Recycling all that is possible seems like the only thing keeping Earth from becoming the dead, garbage-covered planet envisioned in Pixar’s 2008 film “WALL-E.” Dutifully, those that recycle have sorted and separated, filled bins and felt good about sending their plastics, paper, glass and aluminum cans off to be re-purposed.

What is perhaps not well known, however, is that recycling is very much a market-driven business. And like many markets these days, China is its biggest player. Two-thirds of the world’s collective recycling products, including nearly 70 percent of this country’s recyclable material, is sold to Chinese processors — a $5 billion annual business, according to Jacopo Prisco, writing for CNN Money in September. China repurposes the raw materials for use in its extensive manufacturing market.

But this past summer, China informed the World Trade Organization that it intended to ban the import of 24 types of solid waste, including the plastic and mixed paper products most commonly sent from the U.S., citing environmental concerns over “contaminated” product. Meaning, what we’re sending them is unfit for processing because there is unrecyclable garbage included, and too great a percentage of the recyclables are not clean enough. Examples of soiled disposable diapers being found in shipments, as well as mold growing in recyclable containers were noted.

The ban is set to take effect as of the new year and if enforced to its fullest extent, will mean recycling businesses here will have to figure out what to do with product that would otherwise have been sold and shipped to China. Close to home, Pioneer Recycling Services, the company whose Tacoma facility is the recipient of the majority of Vashon’s recycling, will have to figure out an alternative for about 70 percent of it — but the options are few in the short term.

“There are some other destinations available,” Steve Frank, president of Pioneer Recycling Services said. “But the math is what it is. We’ll do whatever is necessary, as many grades (recycling) are not included in the ban and will still have a market. But the fact is that some things will no longer have anywhere to go.”

Ultimately, there may be no other option but to send the recyclable material that can’t be sold to landfills.

“This is a problem at every level, global all the way down to your neighborhood,” Brad Lovaas, executive director of the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association (WRRA), said. “If they (China) close the door on any of the materials, even if they just close it a bit, that will leave us with a lot of material to have to find somewhere else to go.”

And while it would seem on the surface that China didn’t provide much in the way of time to prepare for this drastic change, players in the recycling market have had at least four years of warning.

In 2013, Gwynn Guilford, writing for Quartz, reported on Operation Green Fence, a Chinese government ban on the import of certain types of solid waste, including unwashed plastics and “illegal” — non-recyclable — waste. The Quartz piece was followed by a story in the Washington Post. Both made note of the U.S. recycling industry being “genuinely worried.”

Yet four years later, after relenting on some of Green Fence’s restrictions, a quality enforcement campaign known as National Sword has brought contamination back onto the Chinese recycling radar, and now, the industry is scrambling.

Case in point: With partial bans already in place, Hong Kong — according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and Jacky Lau, director of HK’s recycling business association — is currently seeing 2,500 tons of paper waste a day piling up on its docks and elsewhere on the island because it can no longer send it to the mainland.

“We have never experienced such a crisis,” Lau said in an interview with the SCMP.

And it may well be just a matter of time before things start piling up on this side of the Pacific as well, but Frank and Lovaas believe we can take some positive steps forward.

“Look, China wants to clean up its environment, so it’s raising the standards of quality,” Pioneer’s Frank said. “It’s not clear yet whether this will be a hard ban or not, but even if they continue to buy some of this product, the long and short of it is that they require better quality. And that’s on the individual. We cannot turn garbage into recyclable material.”

Frank provided examples of garbage items his workers encounter in the sorting facility on a regular basis: soiled diapers (average of 10 per week), used hypodermic needles and even bowling balls. He added that about 10 percent of what comes into the sorting facility goes to landfill because it is not, in fact, recyclable.

“We have to do better,” he said. “Regardless of how this plays out long term, we absolutely must improve quality.”

Lovaas noted that the WRRA, which includes all the region’s main recycling haulers and sorting businesses, is working closely with regulators and public officials.

“We’re looking at North American markets and other Asian countries, but most everyone is already running at full capacity. Short term, we are meeting with state, county, city and public health departments,” he explained. “China wants cleaner stuff, so we need to send them cleaner stuff … we don’t want to store it.”

Since recycling businesses are required by law to recycle their product, special permission must be granted by the appropriate governing body to send it to landfill. Such permission is already being obtained by recycling facilities in Oregon, including Pioneer’s Oregon facility. A request to King County Solid Waste for information regarding such requests locally had not been answered as of press time.

ZWV’s Will Lockwood brings the issue home.

“The implications of the China bans are unclear. There is still a lot of uncertainty around this,” he said. “It could require more processing plants to be built stateside, but that will take several years.”

Perhaps this statistic from Guilford’s four-year-old story makes the picture a little clearer: Our dependence on China to take our trash has been so great that as of 2013, there had been no new polyethlene (plastic) recycling plants built in North America since 2003.

Lockwood agrees with Frank and Lovaas about the heart of the matter, and this is where ZWV’s Saturday event comes in.

“As a community, how can we get some of this material out of the stream altogether? How can we get rid of single-use plastics, for example, as one of the biggest problems? Or junk mail and newspaper inserts. It’s like we’re on the top floor when the sewer backs up,” Lockwood said.

He continued to say that the best way to deal with the problem is to get rid of the source.

“I can remember days when none of this existed. Industry created the problem; now we need to ask industry to be responsible and accountable for what it creates,” he said. “The China bottleneck is only going to highlight the issues that have been around for some time.”

He also emphasized the need for personal accountability.

“If China is going to negotiate, they don’t want garbage,” he said. “It is very important, we can’t emphasize that enough, to recycle properly. Clean everything well, no wet or soiled paper products. I have faith in the people of the Pacific Northwest. When solutions are proposed, we can get behind them.”

Community forum

Zero Waste Vashon’s community forum will take place from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday in Bennett Hall at the Episcopal church. There will be small group discussions, and each table will have a facilitator. Refreshments will be provided.

For information on how to recycle properly, see http://kingcounty.gov/depts/dnrp/solid-waste/garbage-recycling/recycling/recycling-quick-guide.aspx#recycle.

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