A sword is dangling over the businesses, nonprofits and municipalities involved in Western North Carolina’s recycling sector — a metaphorical blade, but one that still presents a real challenge. China, for years one of the largest markets for U.S. recyclables, enacted a policy known as “National Sword” in early 2018, which halted imports of numerous scrap materials and placed tight cleanliness standards on many others.
Eric Bradford, director of operations at local environmental nonprofit Asheville GreenWorks, calls China’s move a wake-up call for domestic recyclers. He says that the country’s previously lax import standards had created an artificially generous market for low-quality and contaminated material — garbage in the guise of recycling.
“They were picking through it, taking some of the items to be recycled, and the majority of it was being landfilled,” Bradford explains. “We were basically paying China to be our landfill for these ‘recyclables,’ and we felt good about it.”
As the changes wrought by National Sword slash through the U.S. recycling sector, WNC organizations are examining how to respond. Asheville City Council member Brian Haynes, speaking at a February meeting in support of the city’s application for a $30,000 N.C. Department of Environmental Quality grant to reduce recycling contamination, referred to the current situation as “a crisis stage.”
In crisis, however, some see opportunity. “We learned a valuable lesson from the Chinese sword, that we’ve got to recycle right. It’s got to be clean; it’s got to be better material,” says Mike Greene, recycling business development specialist with the N.C. DEQ’s Recycling Business Assistance Center. “Right now, we’re just rebuilding everything to what it really should’ve been to begin with.”
Region of interest
WNC is better poised than many other parts of the country to make these adjustments, Greene says. While the region did send some of its recyclables to China before National Sword, its distance from the West Coast made overseas shipping less cost-effective compared to domestic sales in the Southeast. As a result, the area’s materials recovery facilities — MRFs — already had relatively close destinations for their products.
Ron Moore, owner of American Recycling of WNC in Candler, estimates that 80% to 90% of his MRF’s sales go to regional buyers. Cardboard, for example, is shipped to mills in Sylva and Cowpens, S.C., both less than 75 miles away. The No. 1 plastic used for most beverage bottles goes to Reidsville and Troy, Ala., while the No. 2 plastic found in milk jugs and detergent containers is split between two North Carolina processing plants.
The biggest impact of National Sword for WNC recyclers, Moore explains, is the flooding of the domestic market with material that previously went abroad. Demand hasn’t yet caught up to this vastly increased supply, causing prices to plummet for commodities such as cardboard, newsprint and mixed paper.
“Those margins are squeezed, and right now, they’re to the point where we’re selling them for below what it costs us to sort,” Moore says. “It’s not a winning model for the long term.”
In response, Moore is expanding his capacity for processing still-profitable plastics, adding a new optical sorting machine with the help of a $40,000 N.C. DEQ grant. He’s also slowing down the MRF’s processing speed so that its yield of mixed paper, which he previously sold to China, will contain fewer contaminants and be more valuable to domestic buyers.
Greene says the DEQ is working to build overall end-user demand for recyclables in the state, particularly for plastics and mixed paper. He anticipates that domestic processors will eventually pick up the China-created slack in the market but acknowledges that the shift will take time.
“With China taking everything cheap, quick and easy, it was just an easy process,” Greene says. “It’s always an evolving process and it will stay an evolving process as technology improves and people’s consumption habits change with that.”
Barry Lawson, co-owner of Curbside Recycling — the MRF, better known as Curbie, that serves the city of Asheville and unincorporated Buncombe County — emphasizes that he’s still able to find end users for all currently accepted recyclables. (See the full list at curbie.com.) Market changes, however, have made his commitment to keeping material out of the landfill considerably more expensive.
Lawson says that Curbie has always lost money on mixed glass and that revenue from No. 3-7 plastics was never sufficient to cover all processing expenses. But lower prices for other commodities, which once subsidized the recycling of these “negative materials,” no longer offset the cost.
“At some points, when commodities prices were a lot higher, we were able to share revenue off of the material with haulers or with municipalities,” Lawson says. “Now that it’s dropped so much, they’re being charged.”
Even if the commodities market were stronger, Lawson continues, upward pressure on WNC wages has raised operating costs for his labor-intensive business. Curbie has reduced its profit margins to absorb some of the expense, he says, but some costs must be passed on to its customers.
“All fees will increase,” Lawson says. “We’ll see that as contracts come up and are rebid. You’re seeing that in Buncombe County right now, and we’ll see how their contract comes back.”
Moore, whose MRF processes recyclables from Henderson, Transylvania and Madison counties, projects that his next contracts with those governments may change to reduce the number of accepted materials. Without viable markets, he says, theoretically recyclable material has nowhere to go but the dump; he notes that American Recycling is landfilling some of the mixed plastics it previously sold to China.
“You hate to cut things out that eventually we’ll have markets for. But right now, we’re hauling stuff, bringing it in, sorting it, and then sending it back out to the landfill, and that’s not good,” he says. “Hopefully, the markets will change prior to [contract renegotiations]. If they don’t come back by then, there’ll probably be some changes.”
Cut it out
As MRF owners wait for the economic situation to improve, they say one way citizens can help is to reduce material contamination by placing soiled items in the trash rather than the recycling bin. “If something comes across with lots of food in it, it’s going to end up going out in the trash,” Moore says. “And then there’s people that just don’t care — they throw a bag of dirty diapers in there, like that’s something that’s recyclable.”
In Asheville, says GreenWorks Director of Education Joéle Emma, much of that contamination comes from a lack of understanding about what can go into the city’s blue single-stream recycling bins. Items such as plastic grocery bags and foam containers, for example, carry a recycling symbol but aren’t accepted by Curbie.
“If we were looking at it on the positive side, it would be because people are wishful-cycling. They really want to recycle as much as they can, so they’re putting in those plastic bags,” Emma says. City figures put Asheville’s contamination rate at 8%, up from a low of 5% in recent years; the average national contamination rate, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association trade group, is roughly 25%.
Jes Foster, Asheville’s solid waste director, says the city is engaging with GreenWorks, as well as national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership, to bring that rate back down. If the city receives its DEQ grant, she adds, residents can expect annual mailers, newspaper and radio ads, refrigerator magnets and other educational materials.
“Maintaining a low contamination rate requires constant education and outreach so that residents know what they can and can’t recycle,” Foster says. “We will need to increase and really focus our outreach programs to address the rising contamination rate.”
As part of that work, GreenWorks plans to pilot an “oops tag” program in the Malvern Hills and Kenilworth neighborhoods. Volunteers would look into residents’ blue bins to check for contaminants, then leave personalized feedback notes about what can’t be recycled through Curbie and where to take those materials.
“People are obviously wanting to do the right thing, so you need to get that information out about how to do it,” Emma says. She stresses that the tags won’t come with any negative consequences but will exclusively focus on delivering targeted advice.
No such program has previously been deployed in Asheville, but Kata Bates, director of marketing for The Recycling Partnership, says a pilot effort in selected Atlanta communities led to a 57% decrease in overall recycling contamination. In March, the nonprofit announced a $4 million donation to Atlanta’s government for similar work throughout the city.
Recycling plays a key role in Asheville’s Municipal Waste Reduction Goal, adopted in 2014, which calls for the city to reduce the amount of material it sends to the landfill by 50% from 2010 levels by 2035. The goal establishes a target of 15% reduction by 2020; Foster reports that the city had cut its waste by just 3.83% as of 2018.
“Reaching this goal will require a comprehensive solid-waste master plan to lay out action steps over the next 15 years,” Foster says. “Additionally, given Asheville’s growth in recent years, I think we may need to revisit this goal to account for population growth and look at a goal that is similar in intention but per-capita based.”
Funding such a plan would cost roughly $100,000, according to figures presented at a March 26 City Council budget worksession. No Council member voiced support for the plan during deliberations at that meeting.
Emma agrees that the area’s swelling population leads to challenges for recycling and waste reduction. She recalls seeing new neighbors put out their first recycling bin with the jetsam of their move — piled high with plastic bags and packing foam. Learned recycling habits from parts of the country with different accepted items die hard, she adds, potentially leading to even more contamination.
GreenWorks is exploring ways to reach new arrivals and visitors to Asheville, as well as strengthening its outreach to those who already live here. Bradford points out that the nonprofit recently launched a Plastic Reduction Task Force, a group of volunteers working to cut use of the material in area restaurants and other businesses. However, he admits that education is a constant challenge, especially given the changes to recycling going on behind the scenes.
“We have a pretty complex recycling system, as far as what can and cannot go into the bin.” Bradford says. “At this point, we’re asking people to ‘when in doubt, keep it out.’”