LIHUE — China wants to rehabilitate its environment, but one of the country’s primary initiatives to do so could leave pollutants piling up over much of the rest of the world, including Hawaii.
The Chinese government announced earlier this year that beginning in January, it will raise its standards for contamination on recyclable materials to one-third of 1 percent — a mark experts have dubbed all but impossible to hit.
China amended that standard in mid-November to 1 percent contamination, according to Resource Recycling Inc., a multi-media publisher of industry business journals, but it remains onerously high.
A contaminant in this context is any substance present other than the target recyclable material — a piece of tape left on an envelope in a mixed paper bin, for instance.
“Essentially what China is saying is, ‘We don’t want your garbage,’” said Paul Buklarewicz, executive director of Recycle Hawaii, a nonprofit educational membership organization. “By cutting down on dirty loads, they think it’s going to help them clean up their environment.”
Recycling experts say China struggles mightily to regulate hundreds of paper mills and plastic plants, which don’t bother with landfills and illegally dump contaminated materials or set flames to piles of plastic that rage more or less continuously.
So instead of focusing on the fruitless wrangling of non-compliant processing facilities within its own country, the Chinese have put the onus on companies that sell the country reclaimed materials.
The economic impact of that decision is already being felt across the U.S., as sellers large and small scramble to secure buyers in other international markets, resulting in plummeting price points.
“The way China shut it down, it plays with the market,” said Dominic Henriques, owner of RRR Recycling, which holds the curbside recycling contract in Honolulu. “China doesn’t accept mixed paper and now the other countries that did are getting flooded with that, so there’s not the demand.”
Overhead is also increasing as companies like RRR hire more workers to meet higher contamination standards. Product also moves more slowly, as it must be inspected more meticulously.
If companies can’t secure new markets quickly enough, or if alternative buyers like Vietnam and India become inundated with material and stop buying for weeks or months, storage becomes a necessity.
Buying freezes would apply even greater strain to companies of all sizes, as it doesn’t make business sense to store too much for too long.
Henriques said RRR has enough space for short periods of moderate storage, but a six-month freeze would require renting a warehouse. Such extra costs aren’t sustainable long-term for many industry business models across the country.
“Everybody is in a tizzy because they won’t know until January how effective and extensive this is,” Jerry Powell, executive editor at Resource Recycling Inc., said in early November. “The prices for everything fell steeply and now have come back up a little this month.”
He added it’s devastating economically for operations in states like California and Oregon, which gather massive amounts of recycled material and deal heavily with China. It won’t hurt Hawaii as much, but businesses in the state aren’t likely to duck the developments unscathed.
Powell said he expects the Chinese will eventually amend their 1 percent figure to 4 or 5 percent, a mark to which the industry could probably adjust.
“Most of the people I’ve talked to say they think China will back down and will probably start accepting bales of materials, from Hawaiian programs for instance, that are about 95 percent clean,” he explained. “You can’t get everything out, everybody knows that, but if you can get about 5 percent contamination, that’s going to be acceptable in my view.”
But the environmental consequences could be as widespread as the economic impacts if China holds to its position for a protracted period of time.
In Hawaii, that would be of particular concern as virtually no recycling happens in the state other than re-use applications. The minimal population can’t economically support the construction of processing facilities, meaning Hawaii has one of two choices — ship it or bury it.
“Worst-case scenario is they start landfilling all the stuff and not recycling at all if it’s too expensive to collect and ship,” Powell said.