China 'Sword' cuts deep into local recycling

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From 4,000 shipping crates per day to zero – China’s refusal to accept ‘contaminated’ recycled materials from the United States of America has had a sudden, drastic impact on the industry here and across the country.

It’s a national crisis, Gene Keenon told Kilgore City Council members Tuesday evening, with wide-ranging effects which could reach into local taxpayers’ wallets.

“It’s affecting the United States in a big way. It’s got a lot of people worried,” according to Republic Services’ manager of municipal and governmental affairs. Announced a year ago, China’s new policy was implemented in March, and the impacts quickly reached the local level: “Kilgore is just one of several cities I have to go talk to … We are so dependent on what China does.”

Dubbed ‘National Sword,’ China put a limit on its importation of recyclable materials contaminated by their previous uses. The country also bolstered its inspections of such imports.

“All of a sudden China decides they’re going to clean up their environment,” Keenon said, turning away shiploads of baled recycled materials like those generated by Rivers Recycling on FM1252.

Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Engineering, co-authored a study on the potential global impact of the National Sword policy.

“About 111 million metric tons of plastic waste is going to be displaced because of the import ban through 2030, so we're going to have to develop more robust recycling programs domestically and rethink the use and design of plastic products if we want to deal with this waste responsibly,” Jambeck said in a press release. “It's hard to predict what will happen to the plastic waste that was once destined for Chinese processing facilities.”

It’s piling up throughout the country. At River Recycling, Keenon said, working harder to decontaminate materials, the policy will have a massive hit on the material recovery facility’s operating budget.

“We were so proud to finally be able to offer recycling in East Texas,” he recalled, putting in the effort to attract the company to the Kilgore area. “They’ve been a great partner here. They provide a lot of jobs there.

“It’s affecting them, and it’s affecting us. Now in order for them continue to operate, they have to charge something.”

For Republic Services, that’s translated to a $20,000 a month unbudgeted expense which, for Kilgore, could result in a 19-cent per month increase in waste bills.

“Kilgore recycles 38.66 tons per month,” he noted, collected from 4,124 homes.

Spending an extra $20 per ton to recycle waste is better than paying $40 per ton to dispose of it in a landfill, Kilgore City Manager Josh Selleck noted.

It could mean about $2.28 more per household per year, he acknowledged, but “There’s not really a cost savings by losing recycling.”

The proposed charge is for the time being, Keenon said.

“If they change and it goes back to the old way, we’re eliminating that,” he repeated, promising to revisit the issue annually as needed. “Hopefully it’s not going to go up.”

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