National Sword recycling program's impacts on Colorado commodities


Editor's note: This post has been updated to correct misreported information and figures. We regret the errors.

"The amount (of plastic) that we're producing is supposed to quadruple by 2050. So we're producing this stuff super fast, it never goes away... a lot of it we don't know how to turn into something else, and yet we continue to churn it out at an astronomical rate," says Communication Director Harlin Savage, of Boulder-base Eco-Cycle.

Commenting more specifically on China's National Sword policy, Savage adds, "So that is something that with China doing what it did is kind of a blessing, or a wake up call, that we need to change our relationship to plastic to something that is more sustainable, or healthier, for the planet."

That National Sword policy began on Dec. 31, 2017, banning several types of solid waste, and increasing inspection of recyclable imports to a .3 percent contamination rate. According to University of Georgia research, China has taken 45 percent of the world's plastic waste since 1992. And 4000 shipping containers of recyclables per day from the U.S. alone.

Only nine percent of all plastics ever produced have been recycled the same research shows. Eight million tons of plastic goes to sea every year, according to Ecowatch. By 2050, that will mean more plastic in the ocean than fish. And plastics are six percent of global oil consumption, projected to be 20 percent by 2050. UGA projections estimate the National Sword's restrictions could leave 111 million metric tons of displaced plastic by 2030.

China's reason? Cleaning up pollution issues by reducing the amount of potentially valuable recycling that ends up as waste. Simply put, dirty recycling, a negative effect of single-stream recycling.

The Indy wrote about single-stream recycling when it came to the Springs back in 2009. At the time it led to a 100 percent increase in participation for the simple reason that it's easy to throw all your recycling in one bin and then put it on the curb once a week. Then sorting facilities, aka materials recovery facilities (MRF), separate each individual item of waste, aka commodity.

"We take the separation — I don't want to say headache — out of the customer's hands," says Clint Cordonnier of Bestway Recycling in Colorado Springs. Bestway offers their curbside pick up and sorting service to 50,000 residential customers for an additional $5.50 a month on top of trash.

Bestway relies mostly on manual sorting off a conveyor belt to sort materials. - TYLER GRIMES
  • Tyler Grimes
  • Bestway relies mostly on manual sorting off a conveyor belt to sort materials.

According to Vice President of Recycling Brent Hildebrand of Denver's Alpine Waste & Recycling, as part of National Sword, China is seeking a .5 percent contamination rate on cardboard and 1 percent on paper.

Bestway's contamination rate is .6 percent. Cordonnier says that's either due to dirty material, or waste that isn't properly sorted. He says they measure by actually opening bundles of sorted material, going through it again and seeing what doesn't belong. So the National Sword's original .3 percent rate was extremely difficult to achieve, that rate changed to .5 percent beginning in March.

Sorting recycling. - TYLER GRIMES
  • Tyler Grimes
  • Sorting recycling.

"It's kind of hit us in a number of different directions," says Hildebrand, adding that quality restrictions have forced Alpine's Altogether Recycling to slow down its system so materials are easier to sort. On top of slowing down, Hildebrand has had to add labor to help with sorting material. Machines do most of the sorting at Altogether, but they are imperfect and need quality control to pull out any unwanted items. Hildebrand says the recent changes have led to a 15 to 20 percent slow down in production.

Beyond slowed production, an increase in the supply of plastics in the U.S. have driven prices down. "The quality restrictions have created what I would call a glut of tons domestically," says Hildebrand. "So you have local mills that have plenty of materials coming out of them, good material, too. That's driven the price down, of course."

Bestway has seen the biggest impact in the export of paper.

Clint Cordonnier at Bestway Recycling showing how much excess paper he had at one point. - TYLER GRIMES
  • Tyler Grimes
  • Clint Cordonnier at Bestway Recycling showing how much excess paper he had at one point.

"Now paper on the other hand, paper has dropped. You can't send it over there, it doesn't leave you a whole lot of options," says Cordonnier. "So we are still able to move paper like we want to just at less of a price and it's going to Mexico." He says at one point excess paper was backing up his MRF, crowding a bay door and encroaching on the dock. Now two train cars sit outside Bestway filled with paper waiting to be transported south.

Overall, the National Sword's impact on Colorado has been minimal due to the efforts of MRFs to distribute domestically.

"Fortunately, I have worked extremely hard to develop domestic relationships to where it has not his us like it has other people," says Cordonnier. He says for long time he hasn't sent plastics overseas, but kept them in the U.S.

For the time being, Hildebrand says Alpine has avoided any excess supply at their facility. He credits keeping a high quality of material since they opened 11 years ago. "Alpine is known for high quality. So it's material that has a good reputation so typically mills or buyers want our material."

In Colorado, the bigger issue may be the amount going to waste. Estimates by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment show Coloradans recycle about 12 percent of total waste, well behind the national average of 35 percent. Which makes Colorado one of the 20 most wasteful states in the country, tossing $267 million worth of recyclable material every year.

Colorado Springs may be even worse, Ecocycle's 2017 State of Recycling Colorado estimates El Paso County diverts 11 percent. Those numbers are not clear because the Springs does not track recycling rates. 

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