'National Sword' policy constricts U.S. recycling industry

The following article was originally published in The Times Tribune. 


Think twice before tossing that yogurt cup in the blue bin.

It’s recyclable, yes, but any goo left on the bottom is tainting a global industry.

Industry experts say single stream recycling, or mixing aluminum, glass, paper and plastic in a single bin, is contaminating huge chunks of valuable material.

“It’s singularly the worst thing that ever happened to the industry,” said David L. Kirtland, president of Diamond K Inc., a major paper recycler in Scranton. “Unequivocally, it’s a terrible move.”

Last spring, the Chinese government’s National Sword 2017 policy set tighter rules on what the world’s largest recyclable material importer will accept.

The policy also sets a high bar for material cleanliness in an industry already subject to dramatic price swings.

Kirtland said in the time period around June to December last year, the price for some paper products could rise and fall by $100 per ton in a month’s time.

“That’s not the norm, but it’s really a commodity business, and 49 percent supply and 51 percent demand sends the price up,” he said.

His company packs and ships 10,000 tons of paper and cardboard every month. His brokerage company, DK Trading Corporation Inc., buys and sells about 25,000 tons a month.

The problem comes down to cleanliness.

With single stream, unwashed yogurt cups and beer cans get stirred in with high quality white office paper, one of the most valuable of recyclables, and ruins it.

“Domestically, single stream, for all intents and purposes, is almost rendered useless because there are so many contaminants in the products,” Kirtland said.

Industry experts are at odds about whether the benefits of single stream outweigh its harms.

Advocates say it makes residential recycling easier because you need fewer containers, said Beth DeNardi, Luzerne County’s recycling coordinator. It costs less for towns, especially if they pay public works employees for curbside pickup, she said.

“There’s a flip side to that — contamination,” she said. “If the material that’s collected is being thrown out because it’s too contaminated, then it defeats the whole purpose of doing single stream.”

It’s hard to compare one county to another, she said. Each town has a different budget, population and requirements from the state.

Berit Case, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s regional recycling coordinator, said all towns in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties under a mandatory recycling rule are in compliance. No towns in the surrounding counties meet the 5,000-resident population threshold for mandatory recycling programs.

The 11 counties in the DEP’s Northeast region generated nearly 3 million tons of recyclable material in 2016, according to the most recent data from the DEP.

Brandon Wright, spokesman for the National Waste & Recycling Association, said his organization encourages single stream recycling because it increases participation. He also recognized that recyclers have a harder time selling it under China’s National Sword.

“Where some of our members have been able to find other markets in India and Indonesia, and even some domestically, you’re just not going to replace the consumption that was going to China,” Wright said. “They were just too big of a market for product to make it up elsewhere.”

In Diamond K’s 125,000-square-foot baling and packaging operation in Scranton’s Providence section, crews use skid steers to push shredded paper onto a heavy conveyor belt.

The shredded stuff rides up to a chute to the baler, which packs it into neat cubes weighing 3,000 pounds apiece.

He buys his waste material from publishers and factories, but much of it arrives from sources where it accumulates one slice of paper at a time. Those sources are more likely to deliver contaminated material than industrial sources. He’s told many of his vendors that he’s not interested in their scrap if they switch to single stream.

Barbara Giovagnoli, Lackawanna County’s recycling coordinator, encouraged companies to write their own good-steward policies, for example, separating paper from cans and plastic. She also recommends those in office settings to put trash cans in a central location and recycling bins at every desk.

“The bottom line is that it’s up to each one of us individually,” Giovagnoli said. “If we create that waste, it’s up to us to properly channel it to be recycled and renewed and made into new things.”

Contact the writer: joconnell@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9131; @jon_oc on Twitter

Start your own program

Companies or community leaders looking to strengthen their recycling programs can contact their county recycling coordinators:

Lackawanna County: Barbara Giovagnoli, 570-963-2017

Luzerne County: Beth DeNardi, 570-331-7048

Susquehanna County: Jen Hibbard, 570-278-3589

Wayne County: Randy Heller, 570-253-9727

Wyoming County: Michael Rogers, 570-836-0729

Recycling law

Towns with more than 5,000 residents, and the individual businesses that operate in them, are required to have recycling programs, according to Act 101 of 1988. Under the act, commercial and municipal establishments must at least recycle aluminum, high-grade office paper and corrugated cardboard, in addition to other materials chosen by the town. Mandated municipalities must collect at least three of a number of items, including glass, plastics, aluminum and newsprint. No towns in Susquehanna, Wayne or Wyoming counties meet the population threshold.

Who benefits

At the very least, recycling can cut down on waste disposal costs. This is true for households that pay per bag for garbage disposal and large corporations with dumpster service. Companies trade recyclable material in large volumes, but the amount produced by a small company or home may not produce any financial benefit. Large companies that produce a lot of, for example, high-grade office paper, can sell it.


Mandated communities

Lackawanna County

Archbald, Blakely, Carbondale, Clarks Summit, Dickson City, Dunmore, Moosic, Old Forge, Olyphant, South Abington Twp., Scott Twp., Scranton, Taylor.

Luzerne County

Dallas Twp., Exeter, Hanover Twp., Hazleton, Kingston, Kingston Twp., Nanticoke, Newport Twp., Pittston, Pittston Twp., Plains Twp., Plymouth, Swoyersville, Wilkes-Barre, Wright Twp.