Contamination restrictions for recyclables have become more strict in China, affecting sorting stations in the U.S. and pushing city waste haulers to ask for public assistance with separating their refuse, according to Phil Bobel, Palo Alto's assistant director of public works.
China recently established a 0.5% contamination standard, meaning any recyclable materials more than that level of non-recyclable material will not be accepted. This new regulation has discouraged GreenWaste of Palo Alto, a company that manages compost and recycling, from sending the country shipments.
In an interview Friday with Palo Alto Online journalists for the webcast "Behind the Headlines," Bobel said the city has stopped sending recyclables, such as paper and plastics, to China because it doesn't want the material rejected and returned, which would cost the city money.
GreenWaste is now redirecting its waste to other Asian countries, even though the hauler is expecting those countries to also enforce tougher standards. For now, Bobel said, those countries are one workaround to China's regulations.
"We are trying to find domestic markets (for recyclables), but we know just finding a market in the U.S. isn't good enough," Bobel said. "That market could just be a vendor who's going to sell it to someone (in Asia), and it could end up out of our control."
This could lead to a lot of mismanagement of plastic and uncertainty of where things are ending up, Bobel said. Greenpeace recently reported that southeast Asian villages are becoming the dumping ground for waste that included in shipments of recycled items.
Starting this July, GreenWaste will need to provide Palo Alto with an annual report stating where exactly paper and plastics are going overseas and what's happening to them, according to Bobel. Right now, there is no tracking system in place, and the recyclables could be creating a social or environmental issue in some countries.
Bobel cited a lack of public awareness as the reason why the contamination of recyclables is happening. A failure to separate recyclables from trash and composting will worsen if it isn't addressed.
One problem is that cities in the Bay Area have different systems for how they deal with recycling, and CalRecycle, a state agency, has not been able to figure out how to help cities respond to the contamination issue, Bobel said.
"We are not getting help from them ... yet."
With the restrictions on contamination increasing, processing centers such as those run by GreenWaste are having to process their material more carefully, and the costs to the cities of recycling will go up, Bobel said.
He emphasized the importance of residents and business alike helping to make it easier for workers at sorting stations to do their jobs.
Not getting water on paper, not putting food in the recycling bin and being more careful with sorting plastic from trash or compostables are just some of the ways people can help with the process.
In particular, plastic film — such as shrink wrap — and bags can get stuck inside sorting machines. Facility workers must shut the machines down throughout the day to remove the plastic.
GreenWaste currently has a campaign for "clean recycling," according to Bobel, and is encouraging residents to help out in two main ways: clean out the recyclables by wiping or scraping them off first and put items in the correct bin (garbage, recycling or composting).
He also explained how grouping smaller pieces of plastic into one giant bag and avoiding throwing loose and smaller plastic pieces helps sorters identify it and actually pull that material out for recycling.
"Yes, we can recycle that stuff, if you bag it," said Bobel. "But if you don't bag it, it just creates a big headache for us."