China’s restrictions mean more material goes to landfills

About 29 percent of what Albuquerque residents put in their blue recycling bins is now going to the landfill. This pile of so-called "residual" material has been collected at Friedman Recycling. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)
About 29 percent of what Albuquerque residents put in their blue recycling bins is now going to the landfill. This pile of so-called “residual” material has been collected at Friedman Recycling. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Friedman Recycling, a Phoenix-based company with operations in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, used to sell 99 percent of its processed recyclables to China before the country’s government – citing environmental issues – banned imports of some scrap materials.

Today, it sends only about 5 percent to China.

Recycling programs are caught in a crunch

Company President Morris Friedman said the material collected in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and other municipalities is now sold to outfits in the U.S. and around Southeast Asia, though it’s often bringing in less money and some of those countries in Asia are now imposing their own restrictions.

But Friedman said he feels more confident than he did last year.

“Is it still a financial burden? Yes. Are commodity prices still depressed? Yes,” he said. “(But) is the material moving? Yes. You have to put everything into perspective.”

China’s ban on certain materials is not its only impact on the recycling market. China has also imposed much higher purity standards on the scrap that it still accepts.

Whereas China used to accept loads of recyclables with contamination levels topping 10 percent, Friedman said, the limit is now 0.5 percent.

That standard required processors like Friedman to slow the sorting lines, making sure fewer problem items make it through, such as plastic bags or soiled materials.

That slowdown has increased the cost of doing business – and therefore the expenses incurred by its customers, like Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

It has also meant much more material ends up in local landfills.

Albuquerque delivers about 37,000 tons of blue-bin collections to Friedman annually. A portion of that has always gone out with the trash. It’s known as the “residual” component – or the amount of “contaminated or otherwise nonrecyclable material,” according to Albuquerque’s contract.

Albuquerque’s audited calculated residual rate was 20.76 percent the last two years. But it was recalibrated to 28.9 percent last August.

Whereas about 7,900 tons of what Albuquerque gave Friedman went to the landfill in fiscal year 2018, it’s on pace to reach nearly 11,000 tons in 2019.

The Santa Fe Solid Waste Management Agency saw an even more dramatic jump, from 9 percent to 25 percent, a difference of about 1,500 tons, executive director Randall Kippenbrock said.

Officials say it is increasingly important for residents to follow their community’s specific recycling guidelines, avoiding mistakes like bagging their recyclable items or putting items that can’t be recycled in their bins.

While citizens may assume something is recyclable, their community may not accept it as such – in some cases because it wreaks havoc at the processing plant.

Plastic bags and garden hoses, for example, can clog Friedman’s machinery and cause temporary stoppages on the line.

“Not only is there not necessarily an end market for a rubber hose, it also makes the process a lot more expensive,” said Sarah Pierpont of the New Mexico Recycling Coalition.

Morris Friedman said food contamination is also a “major” problem at the plant.

“If there’s a residue you can scrape out with a spoon,” said Bret Burrer, Friedman’s director of plant operations, “that’s not good.”

Peirpont said that her organization supports a broader “reduce, reuse and recycle” mission and that residents can help unburden the system by using fewer products, like single-use plastic items. She said the coalition supports Albuquerque’s proposed Clean and Green Retail Ordinance, which would prohibit restaurants and stores from distributing plastic bags.

“If you have your bath overflowing and you come in and it’s spilling water on the floor, is your first solution to grab a mop or turn off the water?” she said.

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