China gets tough on US recyclables. How one Maine town is fighting back.

Why We Wrote This

Beijing’s 2018 crackdown on recyclables was widely decried as a disaster for global recycling. Facing rising recycling costs, cities like Sanford, Maine, have found innovative ways to respond.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
On Pine Tree Waste’s daily recycling run in Sanford, Maine, Dillon Pomerleau tags a curbside recycling bin for noncompliance with the city’s recycling rules.

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Can you recycle responsibility? Instead of blaming China for cracking down on trash in recycling, one city in Maine cleaned up its act. Until 2018, no one much cared that Americans were throwing hair dryers, garden hoses, and Christmas lights in their recycling. Then China got fed up, triggering a spike in costs. One day this summer, the city of Sanford, Maine, got a notice from their recycling facility, ecomaine: In just 15 days, they had racked up thousands of dollars in fees for exceeding the rate of contamination – i.e., nonrecyclables – in their curbside recycling. So the city ramped up enforcement, instructing recycling truck drivers to leave behind what was not recyclable. That sparked weeks of obscenity-laced tirades from residents. But Sanford held firm, and in less than a month it cut contamination rates from 15 to 20 percent to as low as 0 percent per truck. “The problem is not ecomaine enforcing. The problem is not China rejecting contamination,” says Matt Hill, director of Sanford Public Works. “The problem is that people are just not paying attention to what we do with our waste.” 

At the peak of the recycling crisis here, Kayla LeBrun almost pressed the panic button that summons the police. As the administrative assistant at the Sanford Public Works Department, she was on the front lines of an ugly battle – one that had been triggered half a world away.

Residents stormed into the office and set her phone ringing off the hook. They demanded to know, in language that can’t be printed here, why the city’s recycling service was suddenly refusing to pick up things they’d always collected – like plastic grocery bags.

In short, the answer was that China – the No. 1 destination for US recyclables – had cracked down on imports of “recycling” that was laced with trash, and had even stopped taking certain materials altogether. That had driven up the cost of business for US recycling facilities, which in turn started charging municipalities for banned items mixed in with recycling. Sanford, seeking to avoid $100,000 in unexpected fees, abruptly ramped up enforcement of its recycling rules.

That didn’t go over well with many of the city’s 21,000 residents, who pay the highest taxes in York County despite the fact that their household incomes are well below the county average. And on top of that, they pay for each bag of garbage they put out on the curb. So when recycling trucks refused to pick up their recycle bins because of violations, that meant a more expensive trash bill.

“Well, I’ll just throw it in the street,” screamed one lady who had stuffed her recyclables into a 50-pound nonrecyclable dog food bag. Other angry residents stood in front of the recycling trucks and refused to move; one individual even threw a paint can at a truck driver, injuring her.

The company that collects Sanford’s recycling, Casella, was spending as much as two extra hours a day, at a rate of $140 per truck per hour, examining recyclables and leaving orange warning tags for offenders.

But both they and the city held firm. Within just a few weeks, Sanford’s contamination rates – the percent of trash mixed in with recyclables – dropped from 15 to 20 percent to 0 to 3 percent.

At a time when many American cities and towns face steep costs for their recycling programs, leading some to dump their recyclables in landfills or stop collecting them altogether, Sanford’s example offers an alternative path forward. It shows how, at a time when developing countries such as China are raising their environmental standards, the United States can take greater responsibility for the waste it produces.

“The disruption to American recycling markets is in the long term going to be good for the United States from an economic and environmental perspective,” says David Biderman, chief executive of the Solid Waste Association of North America, who says the reduced dependence on a foreign market will boost jobs in the US while also spurring innovation at home. “I think it’s reinvigorated a discussion about reducing waste in the first place.”

Why Sanford didn’t play the blame game

America’s recycling rates have more than tripled over the past 30 years, to nearly 35 percent of total waste produced.

Yet that track record is marred by “wishcycling” – people putting everything from lobster shells to Christmas lights into their recycle bins. In just a few weeks this summer, Sanford residents tried to recycle a hair dryer, coffee grounds, diapers, a dog run chain, stuffed animals, pool toys, blinds, a car mat, a vacuum cleaner, and a cooler.

“They need to get rid of this thing, and here’s a bin that gets picked up every week, so why not give it a shot?” says Matt Hill, director of the Public Works Department in Sanford.

So long as China was taking America’s recyclables, no one much minded. But when Beijing implemented its “National Sword” policy in early 2018, everyone suddenly cared a lot more.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Crusher, the lobster mascot for the Maine Red Claws minor league basketball team, helps ecomaine educator Katrina Venhuizen (not pictured) teach students at the Carl J. Lamb Elementary School in Springvale, Maine, about what is recyclable and what is not.

One day this summer, Ms. LeBrun opened a shocking bill from ecomaine, the Portland-based company that processes Sanford’s recycling. The company, facing a 50 percent drop in revenues as the new Chinese policies created a glut of recyclables in the US, was charging municipalities for exceeding the certain contamination rates. In just 15 days, Sanford had racked up thousands of dollars in fees.

LeBrun immediately brought the bill to Mr. Hill, who calculated that at this rate, it would cost the city about $100,000 in fees a year. He started flipping through the city’s contract with ecomaine.

“There was the opportunity to point the finger at ecomaine,” he says, but the city decided instead to work with ecomaine and Casella to address the underlying problem. “The problem is not ecomaine enforcing. The problem is not China rejecting contamination. The problem is that people are just not paying attention to what we do with our waste.”

Beyond the curb

From the giant bay at ecomaine where Casella and other trucks dump their loads, it takes just 3.5 minutes for recyclables to be whizzed along a conveyor belt through a series of sorting areas, which include everything from workers picking out particular kinds of materials to high-tech optical sensors that trigger bursts of compressed air under certain items in order to separate them into a different channel. The workers and whirring machines process as much as 18 tons an hour, making it difficult to achieve China’s ultra-low contamination rates of 0.5 to 1.5 percent, depending on the material.

“We can clean up the load, but we’re doing it by hand,” says ecomaine chief executive Kevin Roche. “None of the automation is helping with contamination – that’s all manual.”

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Bales of recyclables stand ready for pickup in a parking lot at ecomaine, which runs a recycling facility in Portland, Maine, as well as a waste-to-energy plant (visible in the background) that burns trash to produce electricity.

The day the Monitor visited ecomaine, the facility had just sent a shipment of paper to a mill in West Virginia under new ownership ​– from China.

In effect, US subsidiaries of Chinese firms are becoming part of the solution to US recycling challenges. Faced with the Beijing-imposed decline in imported recyclables, some of them are seeking to rebuild their profits by expanding into US markets.

A subsidiary of Chinese firm Nine Dragons Paper, ND Paper LLC had bought the mill this fall for $62 million in cash. The company, which was only formed this year, is one of at least several China-linked outfits that have set up shop in the US after Beijing’s shift, says Brian Boland, vice president of government affairs and corporate initiatives at ND Paper.

Some 60 percent of American recycling consists of paper, and until 2018 China took more than half of that paper. That created a whole subset of companies in China that used that material to make recycled paper products. So, when starved of their core material, some have started buying up paper mills in the US, including ones that had been shuttered.

ND Paper is in the process of hiring 130 people to reopen a mill in Old Town, Maine, says Mr. Boland. The company has also announced it will invest in a new recycling operation at its plant in Rumford, Maine, next year, giving facilities like ecomaine a destination far closer, and cheaper, than China or even West Virginia.

“Really, the Rumford mill is our biggest hope,” says Mr. Roche, the ecomaine executive.

A model for other communities

Such stateside solutions make a lot of sense to Hill of Sanford’s Public Works.

“If China can do all this with the recycled material, why aren’t we doing it?” he says, citing the cost of transporting a mounting volume of recyclables halfway around the world to be turned into recycled materials. “Why does it have to go over there and then come back here? Why can’t it just be done here?”

Sanford, Casella, and ecomaine’s partnership shows that it can be.

“It definitely could be replicated across the country,” says Kenneth Blow, who oversees Casella’s operations in Sanford and beyond, and says a number of towns have dramatically reduced their contamination rates. “All the municipalities have worked very well with us…. It was a lot of work, a little bit of a struggle, but it’s been successful.”

What can I recycle?

Unfortunately there is no simple answer, as it depends on the collection system and sorting facility used by your city or town. But your Department of Public Works will thank you if you depart from the world of “wishcycling” – crossing your fingers as you throw everything from pool toys and stuffed animals to coffee grinds in your recycle bin, hoping they will be taken away – and spend a few minutes educating yourself. 

Here are a few tips:

  • Check your town or city’s website for a guide to recycling. Many communities or even states post a “recyclopedia” of what’s allowed and what isn’t.
  • Just because something is marked with the triangular recycling symbol doesn’t mean it can go in your curbside recycling. The biggest culprit is plastic grocery bags, which will gum up the machines at most facilities that take residential recycling. Most local grocery stores will recycle such bags, so bring them on your next shopping trip – and/or invest in reusable bags.
  • Food containers, particularly pizza boxes, can be too dirty to recycle. Scrape off that extra cheese, or only recycle the top half of the box.
  • Remove all plastic film, such as that found on the top of yogurt containers. Refrain from putting in long stringy items, like garden hoses or Christmas lights, which tangle up the fast-moving sorting machines and can cause injury to facility employees.
  • Don’t forget about the first two parts of the recycling triangle: Reduce and reuse.
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