County officials learned about the current recycling processing crisis and its effects on county recycling programs at the MACo January 2019 Winter Conference. China, previously one of the largest recycling processors in the world, enacted strict prohibitions in 2018 against the import of certain types of foreign recycled materials. This has posed challenges for state and local government recycling programs as China was the primary market for many recyclable materials and the United States lacks the capacity to process these materials domestically. The panel, Trash Backlash: Will Going Green Put Us in the Red?, took place on Wednesday, January 2.
Miller Associates CEO Chaz Miller discussed what the China policy actually means for the United States. American processors remain the largest buyers for paper and plastic, but China does buy 30% of these products. Miller stressed this was not the first market constriction on recyclable materials. Miller noted that the recent Chinese restrictions are based on political rather than economic decisions. Miller stated that the out way is: (1) better quality; (2) plan for market swings; (3) rethink recycling goals; and (4) expand the American paper and plastic recycling industry.
Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles discussed the state of Maryland’s recycling efforts and the effects China’s policies. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) is focused on moving towards a product life cycle analysis that will look at the energy and greenhouse gas emissions saved through recycling as opposed to simply looking at raw tonnage. Maryland achieved its highest waste diversion rate in 2017 with 49.2% (with a 45% recycling rate) and will continue moving towards a zero waste goal. Grumbles described MDE’s recent regulatory work on composting for food and organic waste and recycling facility regulations. Grumbles stressed the key to dealing with China is to prevent contamination and improve recyclable quality and urged counties to contact MDE if you need help due to the China policies.
Howard County Deputy Director of Public Works/Environmental Mark Deluca questioned whether the ubiquitous “blue bin” in recycling is a friend or foe in terms of recycling processing. Deluca noted that from a collection standpoint single stream recycling has increased recycling rates but has also created contamination issues. Food scraps represents a significant portion of the waste stream and must be addressed. Deluca also noted that people tend to “over-recycle” when they don’t know where to put something and just default to putting it in the recycling bin. Deluca stressed the need to re-educate our residents on what they can recycle. Howard County has a initiated a “Know Before You Throw” recycling education program.
Maryland Delegate Charles Otto moderated the panel.