At this spring’s “ContaminationFest 2018” in Tacoma, in the US state of Washington, recycling advocates displayed the kinds of rubbish that some people mistakenly throw into their recycling bins.

“It was everything from dead cats to diapers,” said Alli Kingfisher, recycling and materials management policy coordinator for Washington’s Department of Ecology.

She called it “wishful” recycling; people imagine that their trash might have some value and should be repurposed.

Organisers of the event, held at LeMay Pierce County Refuse, were trying to educate the community on what is acceptable and what is not, based on new recycling restrictions from China, which until January 1 was where a good portion of the recyclable trash exported by the US ended up.

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Make no mistake: Animal carcasses and used nappies have never been recyclable materials. But China’s crackdown – banning some items and tightening restrictions on others, including recycling staples like cardboard, scrap metal and plastic – has sent many communities across Washington and elsewhere scrambling to adapt, as trash that once was welcomed by China now could end up in local dumps.

China, which announced last summer that it would no longer accept “foreign garbage” as part of its broader anti-pollution campaign, initially blocked 24 types of solid waste and added 32 more varieties in April. Those will take effect by the end of next year.

“The Chinese waste import restrictions have disrupted recycling programmes throughout the United States, and affected tens of millions of tonnes of scrap and recyclables since they were imposed,” said David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. “They are the most important change to these programmes in at least a decade.”

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Americans recycle about 66 million tonnes of material each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Washington has some of the highest solid waste recovery rates – the percentage of usable material recovered from trash in a certain area – in the country. Of the nearly 8 million tonnes of solid waste recovered in Washington in 2015, nearly 4 million was recycled. More than 3.6 million tonnes were diverted for other purposes, according to the state’s ecology department.

Although recycling actually goes back thousands of years, the modern movement took shape in 1970 with the first Earth Day celebration. It’s a multi-step process from kerbside to recycling plant, where it is sorted – glass, paper, cardboard, plastic, metal – then baled and sent to a mill, which converts the materials into other products.

In Tacoma, the city’s recycling costs have gone up. To process and sort the materials, Tacoma uses Waste Management’s JMK Fibers MRF, which has increased its prices to meet China’s lower contamination rate for acceptable material.

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Also, “the costs to market the sorted materials has increased due to the imbalance in supply and demand” said Megan Snow, a spokeswoman for Tacoma.

“Many commodities that previously generated revenue now are a negative revenue stream. And the costs to ship the materials to the alternate markets has increased – shipping rates to China were very low because of the volume of empty containers going back to China. In the short term, the city can absorb these increased costs, but if the markets do not adjust this will not be sustainable longer term with the current rate structure.”

Perhaps a more pressing question: With China narrowing its doors, where is all this stuff going to go?

The volume will be enormous – 111 million tonnes of plastic waste will accumulate by 2030, with 37 million tonnes of that in the US, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Georgia.

In 2015, China imported nearly 60 per cent of all plastic scrap around the globe; 31 per cent of all non-ferrous metal scrap, and 51 per cent of all paper scrap, according to Global Trade magazine.

The impact of China’s new policy has been dramatic. In January last year, the US exported to China more than 208,000 tonnes of mixed paper and nearly 75,000 tonnes of scrap plastics, according to the Solid Waste Association of North America, using data compiled by the US Census Bureau and the US International Trade Commission.

A year later, those numbers plummeted. In January of this year, China accepted just over 11,000 tonnes of mixed paper and 5,000 tonnes of plastic scrap.

Mixed paper, which covers junk mail, magazines, telephone books and more, poses a particular problem.

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“There has been a glut,” said Anne Piacentino, director of the Washington state Recycling Association. “Paper bales have been sitting in the Pacific northwest. That is not great when you have a lot of rain. That material is not marketable.”

Last year recycling companies, which separate the paper, metals and plastic, then send them to processing plants, earned between US$95 and US$100 per tonne.

This year, the value will be US$5 per tonne, according to Brad Lovaas, director of the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association.

“We went through the floor,” he said. “We have to pay people to take it.”

Olympia contracts with a recycling facility near Tacoma. Ron Jones, the city’s senior waste reduction specialist, said it got a discount if the market value of recyclables dropped. The discount can change as the market prices change.

“This is one of the most dramatic dips we’ve seen in terms of market rates,” he said.

Recyclable scrap had been the United States’ biggest export to China by volume, and was valued at US$5.6 billion last year. With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, China has a voracious appetite. American recyclables served as the raw material for manufacturing new products.

But grappling with long-standing environmental problems, Beijing last year decided to ban, as of January 1, “the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted”.

China will accept only materials such as cardboard, plastic, glass and scrap metal with an impurity level of 0.5 per cent, a degree most domestic operations so far cannot achieve. In other words, no grease-stained pizza boxes. They can contaminate an entire batch of recyclables.

“It is very clear they don’t want material that still has to go through another recycling process,” said Adina Renee Adler, senior director for government relations and international affairs for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

“They don’t want the water bottle. They want a plastic pellet that has been cleaned, separated by colour, uniform in shape and in a size that can go straight through to the smelter and that can be melted straight in some new plastic product.”

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The west coast of the US has been particularly reliant on China because of the amount it recycles. “It’s a cultural thing,” said Biderman, of the Solid Waste Association. “There’s a greater emphasis on the environment and sustainability on the west coast, and in the urban northeast corridor, than in other parts of the country.”

Container ships from China would enter US ports, unload their cargo, then fill their containers with American recyclables and return home. Since the restrictions, markets such as India, Vietnam and Malaysia have picked up some of the slack. That is where many of Whatcom county’s recyclables end up.

Northwest Recycling anticipated the current problem. It grew concerned when China tightened inspections for contaminants in 2013, known as “Operation Green Fence”, highlighting “the fragility of global dependence on a single importer”, according to the University of Georgia study. The company began looking for new markets back then.

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Northwest operations manager Marty Kuljis said it also had its customers separate their recyclables because when they were all thrown together in a single bin, there was more chance some could go into landfill.

“People should feel comfortable putting their stuff out,” he said.

Some cities, such as Pasco, are watching from the sidelines to see how the recycling situation plays out. Pasco does not have kerbside recycling, though the city council periodically considers offering it. The issue arose after the November election, but China’s crackdown discouraged the effort.

Deputy city manager Stan Strebel said recycling was not as cost effective for smaller cities like Pasco.

Recycling is a relentless industry. Unlike others, which ebb and flow due to reasons such as the seasons, the weather or economic conditions, recycling does not.

“You collect every single week,” said Susan Robinson, senior policy director for Waste Management, Inc, the largest waste management company in the country. “It’s not subject to the laws of supply and demand. It keeps coming.”

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In the shifting landscape, recycling advocates, operators and municipal officials say consumers need to become better educated about what to recycle, which can vary from town to town.

“If a material is not on Tacoma’s recycling list, or if there is any question, it should go in the garbage,” said Snow, the city’s spokeswoman.

For instance: Tacoma accepts plastic yoghurt containers, but not their lids, even though it is the same material. That is because the lids are flat, weigh little and could get sorted with recyclable paper and contaminate the stream. Material also must be empty, clean and dry, Snow said.

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