ST. JOHN — Although recycling remains the right thing to do, there’s a national emergency affecting the entire garbage industry caused by a major policy shift in China.
Two top officials from Republic Services recently delivered that message to the St. John Town Council. Republic Services, one of the Region’s major garbage handlers, won the bid to collect garbage and recycling in St. John.
James Metros, former Crown Point mayor and Republic Services municipal manager, and General Manager Doug Rosenbaum gave a presentation at a St. John council meeting about what they called “the China Sword,” how it impacts their industry and how recycling habits need to change.
For decades, China has been the largest importer of the world’s recycled commodities, and the U.S. accounted for 40 percent of that “inbound stream,” Rosenbaum said.
Because China would take any kind of recyclables, “this made us all lazy recyclers,” he said, explaining that “68.3 million Americans place a nonrecyclable, contaminated item in the recycling.”
Contaminated items include cardboard pizza boxes that have sauce or other food on them and plastic milk cartons that haven’t been rinsed out and dried, Rosenbaum said.
“Now it’s more pitch it and run,” he said about how Americans recycle, adding that plastic bags and plastic disposable diapers in recycling bins are other major problems.
In 2017 Chinese leaders announced efforts to clean up their country, which included dramatic changes in what the nation would accept in imported recyclables, Rosenbaum said.
For example, China reduced the acceptable contamination levels for any recovered paper and plastic from 3 percent to 0.5 percent. China also banned all mixed paper from being imported regardless of the contamination level. Mixed paper, including newspapers, accounted for 20 percent of the recycled materials once accepted from countries around the world, Rosenbaum said.
These reductions took effect in March and have driven up costs and resulted in changes at most recycling facilities in the U.S. to meet these new standards, he explained.
Metros and Rosenbaum said the immediate impacts include slowing down the processing speeds on the sorting lines to improve the quality of sorted materials.
“It’s almost impossible to get that on the sorting line,” Rosenbaum said, adding that more staff will need to be hired to sort recyclables. In addition, the garbage industry will need to increase self-inspections to further reduce contamination.
“We need markets now in the United States (for recycled products),” Metros said.
Another issue is “the evolving ton,” Rosenbaum noted. Plastic bottles, including water bottles, used to be rigid because they contained more plastic. Now those same bottles are flexible because they contain less plastic.
“It now takes 90 percent more of those bottles to make one ton,” he said. “Where it used to take one truck to transport a ton of plastic bottles, it now takes nine trucks.”
Although the recycling business now produces less profit for garbage companies, Rosenbaum told St. John officials, “We will honor all our contracts,” which include weekly recycling as well as garbage pickup.
Only St. John, Griffith and Crown Point have weekly recycling, he said. All other Northwest Indiana communities have every-other week recycling schedules.
Rosenbaum said that may be the future for all recycling in the area.
Public education about what to recycle and how to recycle remains a critical component, he said. “It will take years to get everybody where we need to be.”