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China Recycling Restrictions Cause Uncertainty In Washington Curbside Programs

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

When China started restricting imports of recyclables, it threw a lot of uncertainty into curbside recycling programs here in the Northwest. Customers used to receive credits on their bills when solid waste companies could make money selling materials. Now those profits are disappearing.

Until the start of the year, China was a major buyer of Washington state’s recyclables. Its new policy called National Sword restricts imports by types of materials and contamination levels.

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission was hoping markets would have stabilized by now. But, two weeks ago it asked counties to review what types of materials they require solid waste haulers to collect in their recycling plans.

"Now local companies that collect, sort and store recyclables are dealing with dramatic cost increases. And these companies must collect the materials that are required in county plans," said Kate Griffith, spokeswoman for the Utilities and Transportation Commission.
She said consumers have seen their curbside bills increase anywhere from 25 cents to several dollars per month.

Rates for Waste Management in Spokane Valley increased about $2 per month in August. The same rate increases for Sunshine Disposal's services took effect in July. It services Medical Lake.

Why is that?

Spokane County Regional Solid Waste Manager Deb Geiger said most of the county’s recyclables were already sold domestically, which means China’s ban increased competition to produce cleaner recycling streams.

Materials that can’t be sold will just take a more expensive route to the landfill.

"With our facility in our region, which is run by Waste Management, the SMART Center, they have to slow down their lines, which increases processing costs. They have to add more employees and add new equipment into their facility to be able to get these materials cleaner. And so all those costs are passed down to the ratepayers," Geiger said.

The UTC’s letter urges counties to consider whether to continue requiring the collection of glass, plastic bags, aseptic packaging, shredded paper, and plastics #3 through #7 because China no longer imports them.

Spokane County doesn’t require haulers to collect any of those materials, but other counties may have to revisit their recycling plans.

Geiger said counties will get a chance to meet with UTC representatives in a few weeks at the annual convention for the Washington Association of County Solid Waste Managers.

She said the county and city of Spokane plan to roll out an educational campaign on proper recycling around the start of the new year.