China is a manufacturing giant that produces many of the products Washingtonians and Americans buy. As Chinese manufacturing grew, so did their demand for recycled materials that they could use to make products.
Shipping recyclables from the U.S. to China was easy. Empty ships headed back to China after unloading goods along the West Coast provided cheap transport for recyclable materials from the Western states. The recycling industry in Washington grew to rely on China's demand for our materials.
China was a major buyer of Washington's recyclables.
In 2018, the Chinese government announced a new set of rules for the recyclables they import into their country. They no longer import low-grade plastics and unsorted paper. They also require that other imported recyclables are very clean. This import ban came about for two primary reasons:
China wanted to close some old, polluting paper mills.
China is no longer willing to sort recycling with "contamination" —the extra stuff that ends up in the recycling that shouldn't be there. This includes things like plastic bags, pieces of clothing, and trash. For years, Chinese facilities have been willing to buy recyclables from the U.S. and Europe and then sort it again. But that's changed.
Read Resource Recycling's complete timeline of China's recycling import ban.
There are two primary reasons that have developed over the past couple of decades:
The U.S. manufactures fewer products than it used to, so there is a much lower domestic demand for the recycled materials used to make products and packaging.
Many Chinese manufacturers have been willing to pay more for recycled materials than U.S. manufacturers, so recyclable sellers have sent them to China.
Any item that does not belong in the recycling process is a contaminant.
You "contaminate" recyclables when you throw stuff into the recycling that should not be there. This includes things like plastic bags, dirty containers, and trash.
Contamination makes it harder to sell recyclables. Sorting facilities spend lots of time and money to remove contamination. Contamination can cause a load of clean recyclables to be rejected by a buyer or cause a bale of recyclables to be landfilled.
Prevent contamination by only putting the items shown on the Kitsap County recycling guide into your recycling bin.
Many materials you put in your recycling bin are still being recycled. Aluminum cans, cardboard, plastic water and soda bottles, and milk jugs are still in demand by domestic recycling processers.
China's restrictions apply to low-grade plastics and mixed paper. Although it's against Washington law to landfill recyclable materials, WA's Department of Ecology has granted a small number of exceptions. These exceptions allow recycling processers to landfill only the materials they cannot sell or store.
Bainbridge Disposal Customers: Bainbridge Disposal trucks your recyclables to their transfer station on Bainbridge Island. They do not mix recyclables with garbage. At the transfer station, they combine recyclables collected in Poulsbo and Bainbridge Island.
Waste Management Customers: Waste Management trucks your recyclables to Olympic View Transfer Station in Bremerton. They do not mix recyclables with garbage. At the transfer station, they combine recyclables collected throughout most of the county.
All customers: Waste Management and Bainbridge Disposal truck recyclables to a sorting facility called JMK Fibers in Tacoma. Waste Management owns the facility. At the facility, both people and machines separate recyclables by type. After sorting, they compact recyclables into large bales.
Waste Management then sells the bales to processors that turn recyclables into raw materials. Because the sorting process is not perfect, some of the bales have contaminants like plastic bags, dirty containers, and trash.
Domestic and international processers bid on the bales on an open market. The buyer inspects each bale. The bale's quality affects the price—contaminated or wet bales are not as valuable as clean and dry bales.
When recycling markets are good, you receive a recycling rebate on your garbage and recycling bill. If sellers cannot sell a bale of recycling, they may have to pay the processor to take the bale. Or they may re-sort the bale to remove contaminants. It is much easier to sell recyclables if the quality is good from the start. Quality begins in your home.
China's import ban is creating a major disruption in Washington. Material Recovery Facilities in Washington, which sort mixed recyclables and sell them to commodity brokers, have drastically slowed sorting machines so workers can remove more contaminants.
Slower machines mean these facilities are processing fewer materials. Right now, homes and businesses in Washington are producing more materials than these facilities can manage. In the short term, some recycling processers received permission to landfill materials that they cannot sell or store.
We are just beginning to feel the impacts of the import ban. There is still a lot that is unknown. Washington's Department of Ecology is working with local governments to identify ways to improved recycling in Washington.
Keep recycling-- but do it correctly. Recycling is still the right thing to do—it saves energy, resources, and reduces greenhouse gases. Kitsap's recycling rules haven't changed, but it's still a great time to refresh your recycling skills.
Follow these five recycling rules:
Recyclables must be empty, clean, and dry.
Use the Kitsap recycling guide and only recycle the items shown on the guide.
Keep recyclables loose. No plastic bags.
Don't "wishcycle." When in doubt, throw it out.
Ignore the recycling symbol printed on packaging. Use the Kitsap recycling guide instead.