Will China’s new recycling standards mean higher taxes in California?

Susan Shelley

Columnist and member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group, and the author of the book, “How Trump Won.”


Do you know where your recyclables go when they leave your blue bin?

Would you believe China?

But that’s about to change. In July, China notified the World Trade Organization that on Jan. 1 it will impose much stricter quality standards and will turn away shipments that don’t make the grade. In recycling, quality refers to how much non-recyclable material is mixed in with the recyclables. Anything non-recyclable is a “contaminant” that has to be removed in a sorting process. The stricter the standard, the slower and more costly the processing.

Recyclables are sold like any other commodity. Prices fluctuate according to demand. In order for recycling to be financially sustainable, the value of the recyclables has to exceed the cost of picking up the stuff, sorting it, shipping it, and recycling it into something that can be sold and shipped to someone who can use it.

In 2016, California shipped recyclables with a value of $21 million by air to Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany. Trash worth $108 million went by rail or truck to Mexico. But $4.6 billion worth of recyclables, 15 million tons, were shipped out from California’s ports. By far the greatest share of our recyclables, 62 percent, went to China.

Seaborne exports of all commodities from California ports in 2016 totaled 63 million tons, with a vessel value of more than $89 billion. Recyclable material accounted for 24 percent of the commodities exports by weight, 5 percent by value.

Some garbage is worth more than other garbage. Mixed paper, cardboard and paperboard made up 59 percent of the weight, but ferrous and non-ferrous metals accounted for 62 percent of the value.

CalRecycle, the state agency in charge of tracking these things, doesn’t know exactly how much of the garbage on the ships originated in California, and it doesn’t have precise numbers for local jurisdictions – reporting is supposed to start in 2019 – but Californians generated an estimated 76.5 million tons of waste material in 2016. The agency says 42.7 million tons were “disposed,” meaning buried in landfills, and the remaining 33.8 million tons were “source reduced, recycled or composted.” At least a third of the 33.8 million tons was exported to overseas markets.

Last year, according to CalRecycle, the overseas shipping of recyclables created 2.1 million metric tons of greenhouse gases.

In 2011, California adopted a law that set a statewide goal of 75 percent recycling by 2020. But it’s not happening. CalRecycle reported in August that California’s overall disposal—garbage that goes to landfills—increased in 2016 for the fourth consecutive year.

Why? Some of the factors cited by CalRecycle include “relatively low disposal costs, declines in global scrap values for recyclable commodities, and limited in-state infrastructure.” The agency also blamed “increased consumption” resulting from an improving economy.

That should be good news, but CalRecycle isn’t happy.

“Even as California continues to push towards new and more aggressive recycling targets, CalRecycle has not seen a meaningful decrease in the total amount of disposal since 2009,” the agency lamented.

California’s recycling rate has fallen from 50 percent in 2014 to 47 percent in 2015 to 44 percent in 2016. That’s the lowest rate since the 75 percent goal was established in 2011.

CalRecycle says the only way we’re going to hit the 75 percent target is if more than half of the solid waste that is currently disposed is “source reduced, recycled or composted.”

But how?

In its August report, CalRecycle suggests raising the taxes and fees for disposal. “Europe’s solid waste policies encourage higher landfill fees and landfill taxes as a strategy to drive material away from landfills,” the agency notes approvingly. When disposal is more expensive, costly recycling and composting are “more economically competitive.”

At this point, you may want to ask yourself how much of your time and money you want to spend on garbage. Because when China stops accepting our “contaminated” recyclables, this is all going to get a lot more expensive and complicated.

The stuff is already starting to stack up. In Oregon, state regulators have received 14 requests from companies seeking permission to dispose of recyclables in landfills. Even in California, CalRecycle says it has received “anecdotal reports of companies landfilling or stockpiling recyclable materials.”

We are rapidly approaching the point, or maybe we’re past it, where recycling simply does not pencil out unless consumers and taxpayers subsidize the whole process, to a greater and greater degree every year.

What a waste that would be.

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