Chinese ‘Sword’ cuts deep

Foreign policy hits recycling programs hard, program continues here amid national strain

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A Chinese policy refusing the importation of large amounts of American recyclable materials continues to cause problems for waste and recycling services in the U.S., including in Kilgore.

In 2017, China announced a ban on the importation of certain recyclable items and set a high purity standard for items it would accept. Known as the “National Sword” policy, the change includes a stated goal to implement a total import ban on recyclables by 2020.

Claiming the move was done to protect health in China, recyclables contaminated with food waste or non-recyclable trash are no longer being accepted for import. The change upset the operations of many recycling companies in the U.S., who had been shipping their recyclables to China at a profit for years.

“It’s still going on. It hasn’t gotten any better and according to everything I’m reading, it’s not going to change,” said Gene Keenon, manager of municipal and government affairs for Republic Services, which handles Kilgore’s waste and recycling.

“China is still cutting off the U.S. and they say the main reason is our recycling is way too contaminated. They’re going to try to clean up their country.”

Republic Services sends recyclables to Rivers Recycling in Kilgore on FM 1252 for processing. Many of the items recycled there are sent to other locations in the U.S. to be turned into new, recycled products. But now that China is no longer buying surplus recyclables, it’s getting harder to find somewhere to send the excess.

The loss of a major purchaser of these items is having serious effects nationwide.

“You’ll see that many cities across the nation have canceled their recycling programs because of their issues of cost or the fact that it’s just not good, clean recycling that they can market in other areas,” Keenon said.

Reports from the New York Times and National Public Radio indicate some major cities with robust recycling programs have taken to dumping recyclable material in landfills or even in incinerators in an effort to deal with the huge excess.

Things haven’t reached that point in Kilgore and recyclables are still being sent to Rivers Recycling but if a solution isn’t found, recycling some items here might become unsustainable.

“I think if it ever got so bad that we didn’t have a place to take the recyclables we would just take up our collection program and ask people to just throw everything in the trash,” Keenon said.

“There’s such a high cost now to try to recycle, just to get the material recovery centers to accept anything. It just bottlenecks where they are and they can’t ship it out. Storing it for a long period of time creates a lot of issues. Fire hazards, the material getting too old to be marketable, it’s risky trying to store it.”

For now, there doesn’t seem to be an end to the “National Sword” in sight. China is steadfastly refusing a huge amount of American recyclables.

“China is serious about this. It doesn’t look like they’re going to take it anytime soon.”

Keenon added he had heard a bit of good news: President Donald Trump may try to bring the issue up with China in the near future.

A Feb. 29 press release from Recycling Today, a trade publication for recycling professionals, stated the National Waste and Recycling Association in Arlington, Virginia sent a letter to the president asking him to include discussion about softening the recyclable import ban in future trade talks with China.

In the meantime, locals can help out with the recycling issue by paying close attention to what they put in their recycling bin.

“The best thing we’ve stressed for 20 years that we’ve been recycling in this area is to put only the things that are recyclable in the recycling container,” he said, adding it can take time to spread the word about proper recycling but that East Texas had gotten much better at it over the years.

Republic Services website contains a list of what can and cannot be recycled at www.RepublicServices.com/Recycling-Guide.

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