With China's rule change, Puget Sound recycling could be headed for the trash

SEATTLE -- Starting in 2018, China will change what kind of solid waste and recyclables it will allow from foreign countries.

It may seem like an esoteric international rule change. But confusing as the change is, it could have a big local impact.

The simplified version is this:

Beijing notified the World Trade Organization earlier this year that China will soon ban the import of 24 kinds of waste, including many kinds of consumer plastic and unsorted paper. China also mandated the contamination level of recycling products allowed in be less than .3 percent, meaning no leftover tomato sauce or dirty food containers.

Essentially, they want cleaner recyclables  from us, says Brad Lovaas with the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association. And .3 percent might not even be possible.

"Right now we're at about 3 to 5 percent," Lovaas says. "I don't know with the current technology if we'll be able to get to .3 percent."

Much of the banned and dirty recycling China doesn't want is the kind everyday people put into their recycling bins. Washington, California and Oregon recycle about half their overall waste, Lovaas says. A vast majority that recycling is sent to China because their isn't the recycling infrastructure in the U.S., and China wants recyclable materials to feed their vast manufacturing sector.

But as China consumes more and more goods on its own, the country no longer has an insatiable need for waste from other countries. The country has recycles of its own.

Just how China's ban on certain plastics and papers will impact consumers here is not exactly known, Lovaas says. The consensus among media reports is the ban isn't good.

"There are concerns that much of the waste that China currently imports, especially the lower grade materials, will have nowhere else to go," reports Scientific American.

Lovaas fears at its worst, China's rule changes will mean more waste in local landfills.

"Worst case scenario - especially in the short term - is that more things will end up in the landfill."

Lovaas says American consumers can do their part at home. Make sure everything recycled is clean and free of foodstuffs. Know what your county or city will take.

"People can help by just recycling right," Lovaas says.

A spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities said he's not sure exactly how much of the city's recycling is shipped to China, nor how the new rules will change what the city needs to do. Seattle Public Utilities released this statement:

New restrictions by the Chinese government on what recyclables may be imported into their country will go into place Jan. 1, 2018. The ban, known as National Sword, is focused on reducing the amount of contamination materials imported to China. Materials most likely to be impacted are low-grade mixed plastics and mixed waste paper. These restrictions may have impacts on Washington state’s residential and commercial recycling programs, including Seattle’s nationally-recognized recycling programs.

Seattle is not changing its recycling program currently. We look at this as an opportunity to encourage customers to focus on reducing contamination in the recyclables they sort out at home, work and in the community. 

Customers should continue to recycle right, following current guidelines for acceptable materials.  Remember to keep it clean. Ensure that recyclables are clean, and not contaminated by items such as food or liquids. This will help ensure our materials meet the new requirements.

Despite worse case scenarios, Lovaas says it will all be figured out in the long run. That may mean building more recycling centers here at home.

"We don't want to turn one problem into two or three other problems," Lovaas said.