Impact from China’s new import recycling regulations ‘negligible’ on South Shore |

Impact from China’s new import recycling regulations ‘negligible’ on South Shore

Claire Cudahy
South Tahoe Refuse employees sort recyclable materials from waste on a conveyor belt at the facility on Wednesday, March 14.
Claire Cudahy / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

Changes in import regulations for waste material in China — which processes at least half of the world’s paper, metal and plastic — are having very little impact on South Shore recycling operations.

Last July the Chinese government notified the World Trade Organization that it planned to ban the import of some “foreign garbage” to protect the environment and improve public health. The ban covers 24 types of solid waste, including mixed paper and scrap plastic.

Chinese officials also said they would start enforcing stricter clean recycling standards. They complained that the country receives too much recycling that is mixed with other garbage or not properly cleaned.

A shipment of recyclable materials that exceeds China’s contamination rate could be rejected at the port and sent back.

The regulation changes went into effect Jan. 1.

As a result, recycling centers across the globe are reporting large stockpiles of plastic materials. Some plants are attempting to alleviate the backup by shipping to other countries like Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Malaysia with varying success.

South Tahoe Refuse, which handles garbage and recycling pick-up for residents in the Tahoe Basin portions of El Dorado County and Douglas County, said the regulations have had a minimal impact on its operation.

“It hasn’t affected our ability to ship so far. To date, we’re OK,” said Jeanne Lear, human resources manager for South Tahoe Refuse. “We go through a broker in Sacramento who has been really good with us as far as taking our materials and getting our loads out.”

Lear noted that they’ve never had an issue with high contamination rates either. South Tahoe Refuse sorts both garbage bags and recycling-designated “blue bags” for reusable materials, resulting in a contamination rate that’s always been below 5 percent, said Lear. By comparison, Sacramento has a contamination rate of 15 percent.

However, the regulation changes have reversed the flow of cash for certain recyclable materials at the waste center.

“We used to receive a scrap value per ton, like $25 a ton for mixed paper, from our broker. Our broker would pay us for it then he would sell it to China,” explained Lear. “Now those prices are down to nothing and it actually costs us to get the material recycled.”

The same goes for lower grade scrap plastic.

South Tahoe Refuse still receives money for recycling other materials like aluminum, cardboard, plastic No. 1 (i.e. soda bottles) and plastic No. 2 (i.e. milk jugs).

In 2017, South Tahoe Refuse shipped out 21 tons of aluminum, 71 tons of plastic No. 1 and 2, 89 tons of lower grade mixed plastic, 1,037 tons of cardboard and 412 tons of mixed paper.

Lear noted that the loss in recycling revenues, which goes into the budget for operational costs, is “negligible.”

The most recent rate increase from the company — a hike from $26.55 a month to $28.89 for South Lake Tahoe customers in the new year — had almost nothing to do with China’s regulation changes.

The rate increase is the result of South Tahoe Refuse’s projected $1.3 million revenue shortfall for 2018 due, in part, to the expiration of a $4.7-million credit paid to ratepayers over a six-year period to compensate for excess rates during the construction of its resource recovery facility.

“The changes have not had a huge impact given the scale of it at this point, but we are keeping our eyes on it continually” said Lear. “The regs are pretty tight right now. The scrutiny is pretty high.”

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