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Science and Innovations

Flagstaff Feels Ripple Effects of China’s Recycling Ban

Melissa Sevigny

China is cracking down on what kind of recycling it buys from the rest of the world. That has ripple effects all the way to Flagstaff. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, a lot of the stuff you think should be recycled actually ends up in a landfill.

Todd Hanson, waste manager at the Cinder Lake city landfill, says people try to recycle all kinds of strange things: “Bowling balls. And you’d be surprised how many diapers come through. That’s one I don’t get. A diaper?”

Once he found a mortar shell on the recycling line. “It was a dud, but it sure caused a little bit of excitement,” he remembers.

This behavior is called “wish-cycling”—tossing stuff in the recycle bin and hoping something good will happen to it. But Hanson says it just ends up here, at the landfill. Recycling mills only want to buy clean bundles of paper, metal, and certain plastics, because there’s a market for that.

Flagstaff’s recycling is sold to mills in Phoenix, California and New Mexico, and from there to global markets. Half of the world’s exported recycling used to end up in China. But this year China banned 24 types of scrap. Materials it WILL take, like cardboard, can’t be contaminated by more than half a percent. Hanson says, “They stopped wanting to be the world’s garbage dump of all this stuff. They wanted to clean up their own environment and do what’s right for their own country.”  

The ban forced some American cities to take drastic actions, raising rates or ending recycling programs entirely. In Flagstaff, residents can no longer recycle plastics 3 through 7.

Carrie Tupper is a spokesperson for Norton Environmental, which runs Flagstaff’s recycling facility. She says, “Unfortunately there is nothing we can do with those plastics, so to continue to bring them here, it’s just creating very expensive trash.”

Even before China’s ban, flimsy plastics like raspberry containers and one-use cups didn’t have much of a market. Tupper says, “We do have to be able to sell this to someone, to pay the overhead, for the equipment, and the associates. And it’s very tight right now.”  

Domestic mills are flooded with material that used to go to China. So buyers can pick and choose the best bundles of recyclables, stuff that isn’t contaminated by “wish-cycling.” At Flagstaff’s recycling facility, 25% percent of the material brought in is actually trash, and has to be picked out by hand.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Moran Henn demonstrates what can and can't be recycled during a tour hosted by the Willow Bend Environmental Education Center.

Moran Henn of the Willow Bend Environmental Education Center gives a tour of the facility. She points out a bundle of fabric a on the tipping floor, where unsorted recycling is dumped: “I was gonna say, there’s always some type of bedding material.” The rules for recycling are complicated, and they change all the time in response to global markets.

Henn says it’s still the right choice, “but definitely we should shift to reusing by design, reducing materials, sharing—not in a ‘kumbaya’, but really as an effective way to move forward as a society.”  

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Unsorted recycling is dumped on the tipping floor at Flagstaff's Materials Recovery Facility.

Mary Newstead joined the tour to learn about the new rules for plastic. She serves on the board of the Aspen Valley Golf Course, which wants to get rid of its Styrofoam cups. She says, “We’re going to be grappling with what we replace our Styrofoam cups with, because no longer do the small plastic cups meet the recycling requirements,” nor do paper cups with waxy linings.

Newstead says she’ll keep looking for a better option. “It’s part of being part of the planet. It’s sad the global markets are dictating that so many of these things aren’t recyclable.”

For now, Flagstaff still has a market for its recyclables. But more changes could be coming. China plans to ban more items by 2020, including additional plastics and stainless steel.

To learn more, check out this household guide to recycling in Flagstaff, or tour the recycling center on the first Friday of the month with the Willow Bend Environmental Education Center.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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