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China's Import Policies Are Affecting U.S. Recycling Companies


One of the top American exporters doesn't manufacture things or grow them or dig them out of the ground. Waste Management Incorporated ranks No. 7 by volume among U.S. companies selling abroad. They sell the stuff that we recycle. China is the biggest importer of U.S. recyclables. But that could change. Over the summer, China began a campaign to ban foreign waste. It's part of an effort, the government says, to protect people's health as well as the environment.

And to hear about what this means for U.S. recycling programs we reached out to Brent Bell, who's in charge of recycling at Waste Management. Hi, welcome to the program.

BRENT BELL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: I understand there are two things going on with China at the moment and recycling. One of them is a ban on certain kinds of solid waste - mixed paper, for example. We'll get to that in a moment. But the other dramatic thing that happened this fall was that China essentially halted imports of most recyclables, period. What happened? And how did that affect Waste Management?

BELL: That's correct. So early in the summer, we did get notification that China was informing the World Trade Organization that they planned on banning certain materials. And for the most part, Waste Management was already protected from those materials that were included in the ban. However, later on in the year, we get notice from our Chinese customers that the import licenses that allows them to bring in the recyclable materials from the U.S., from Europe, from other parts of the world were being restricted. We actually had to find alternative markets for the recycling material that we collect at the curbside every day.

SIEGEL: Alternative markets such as...

BELL: We had been working for the past few years on developing markets in India, Vietnam, Thailand and even South America. We've also seen some U.S. mills recently do some investments that has allowed us to move that material that China displaced into some of these alternative markets. Although, because of the short notice, the pricing for recycling has taken a downturn.

SIEGEL: Now, the longer-term change out there is that China is implementing a ban on 24 types of materials which include mixed paper, materials that Waste Management has been exporting to China. First of all, what's their problem with mixed paper?

BELL: Right. I believe that China has a couple things going on that they've been trying to push for. One is from an environmental perspective. A lot of the material that they were receiving that was included in the ban was heavily contaminated. And so China has really focused on the contamination of this material, essentially not wanting to import, you know, waste anymore into their country. The second piece of it is we do believe the Chinese government has made a lot of efforts to try to source more of the material domestically - so within China - and not rely on the imports from around the world.

SIEGEL: What sort of problem - when the Chinese speak of contamination, what are they talking about? Are they talking about food garbage being - traces of it being mixed in the paper? Or is it the staples are left in the catalogs? I mean, what kind of contamination are we talking about?

BELL: Yeah. One of the downsides that we've seen in the U.S. specifically as we made recycling more efficient, easy to participate in what we call single-stream programs - that's where all the recycling materials can be placed into one single-stream container. So your bottles and cans and your newspaper and your cardboard all go into one bin, and then we sort those at the material recovery facilities that we operate throughout the United Sates. What happens, unfortunately, is we now get garden hoses, bowling balls, camping propane cylinders. All are not accepted in programs, but they come into our facilities anyway and contaminate good materials. And the worst is safety concerns. Some of the contaminants have started fires and explosions within our facilities. So we've really created a recycling education program called Recycle Often Recycle Right to help customers understand what belongs in the recycling carts.

SIEGEL: So when I unscrew the hard plastic cap from a soft plastic soda bottle and put the cap into the trash and the bottle into the recycling, I'm not crazy? I'm actually helping to reduce contamination?

BELL: You are helping out, although the caps are probably what I would call a minor part of the contamination. Currently we average about 16 to 17 percent contamination, and our customers worldwide expect our recycling material to be about 99 percent clean. So we have a big task ahead of us to make sure that material is as clean as it needs to be for our customers on the outbound side.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Bell, thank you very much for talking with us today.

BELL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Brent Bell is vice president of recycling operations at Waste Management. The company says it does expect China to resume imports of cardboard and other recyclables that are not on their banned list sometime next year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.