China ups recycling regulations, causing ripples in Hawaii

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.

  1. Charlie Chimknee December 27, 2017 6:13 am Reply

    Interesting and educational article, mahalo. We’ve been recently informed that if ones plastic refuse does not have a stamped insignia of a Triangle and a number 1 or 2 inside the Triangle then you cannot recycle it into the County recycle locations’ bins, even #6 on plastic cups are not allowed.

    We were under the impression that if the throw away plastic was of the same consistency as these #1 and #2 plastics that they were OK to recycle them as well. Apparently not…!

    Not sure but apparently we’ve been “contaminating” the 1 and 2 recyclables with plastics unfit for recycling, so now our landfill on KAUAI will get the added solid, thicker than paper, clear plastic wrapping that packages many products; along with styrofoam, Saran Wrap types, and plastic toys and a whole lot more kinds of plastic.

    People say plastic can take thousands of years to break down, though I’ve seen plastic dolls disintegrate in a few years at the beach in the sun.

    Plastic like so many other products, for example almost all medicines, food additives, pesticides, and insecticides, etc, are made from petroleum, i.e., oil; which are all carcinogenic, which means they cause cancer.

    People that ingest carcinogens are at risk for cancer, including the treatment for cancer is often with the use of carcinogenic medicines.

    Will wonders ever cease…?

    Would shredding plastic into tiny pieces accelerate the breakdown of the plastic so that it could recycle naturally in less time, like only a thousand years instead of thousands of years…?

    It’s for sure that apparently before plastic, when the world was more natural and less polluted, we just did not need plastic. Younger generations think plastic is sort of “natural”; I mean can kids today imagine drinking a bottle of water where the bottle was made of glass?

    Do kids even drink water when the shelves are stacked and stocked with soda.

    Interesting, glass is made from sand…you can lay down comfortably in a bathing suit on sand but you cannot lay down like that on.



  2. Charlie Chimknee December 27, 2017 6:18 am Reply

    Oops, meant to say, you can lay down on sand but you cannot lay down comfortably in a bathing suit on oil.


  3. Harry Oyama December 27, 2017 8:55 am Reply

    Its about time the world gets to know that China is a manipulator of worldly economics and expect others to clean up their own polluted country the same way they intend to strip mine the so called “South China Sea”, harvesting rare endangered sea life and no regard for environmental issues since all they care about it making more money.

  4. Sandy December 27, 2017 10:25 am Reply

    I am a bit confused about this article.

    Does this mean that we don’t really recycle our paper? We ship the paper to China, and then they burn it? Are we being told one thing: that our paper is being recycled, only in reality it is just being burned in another country and someone, ie the government is making money on our volunteer efforts?

  5. Geckoman December 27, 2017 3:04 pm Reply

    Don’t bury it. There must be another alternative. There’s only so much room on an island. Once you have a mountain of trash you have move run-off and seepage.

  6. Reverend Malama Robinson December 28, 2017 8:37 am Reply

    Burned for electric generation was and must again be the immediate solution to ALL waste and landfill concerns that are now teetering on the brink of catastrophic disaster

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