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China policies affect recycling

Scrap policy is evolving and how the United States responds matters, and matters a lot.

That’s what panelists told a crowd assembled at the 2018 Lehigh Valley Energy & Environment Outlook and Expo, Sept. 21, Homewood Suites, Center Valley, presented by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Ground zero for those changes are occurring in China. The communist country has recently banned certain materials and is requiring exporters to ship materials that are almost entirely devoid of contamination.

“With 30 percent U.S. scrap destined for export, the health of the U.S. recycling industry is directly tied to the health of the global economy,” said Wayne Bowen, senior program manager, Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, and member of the panel.

He noted that the “U.S. exports 41 million tons of scrap to 155 countries.” That figure makes up 972 million tons of total global consumption of recyclables.

Bowen added that China is particularly important to the recycling industry. While China has low amounts of iron and steel scrap, it handles more than half of the world’s cooper, plastic and recovered paper and fiber.

“About 31 percent of all American scrap commodity exports, worth $5.6 billion, were shipped to China during 2017 alone,” he said.

China is facing a severe environmental crisis, as 60 percent of the country’s groundwater is unfit for human consumption and 19 percent of arable land is contaminated with heavy metals.

However, panelist Andrew Dunbar, marketing director, Waste Management, said businesses and governments can deal with the restrictions with some planning.

“If the right stuff goes into the containers, we can get it to the right spot,” Dunbar said. “... People still want to recycle.”

“I think it is time to rethink our recycling programs,” said Dunbar added. “... which materials offer the best bang for the buck? As the cost of recycling increases, should we be looking more closely at the benefits of waste reduction?”

This could also mean higher hauling costs. For example, Ann Saurman manager, solid waster and recycling, City of Allentown, took those in attendance on a theoretical tour of what happens to recyclable goods after they are collected. The city contracts for curbside collection with Total Recycle-J.P. Mascaro for its “materials recovery facility.” Once there, goods are separated, baled and marketed. The contract is market-driven and adjusted monthly.

She said the city is being charged $12.80 per ton.

A second panel discussion focused on federal storm water management requirements and how they impact municipalities.