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

Jan 4, 2019 by

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.

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

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