Reduce, Reuse and Rethink? New Restrictions from China on imported recycling force Marin to reexamine policies

Nathan Charles

Looking around Marin County, one might infer based off the endless redwoods trees or green Mt. Tam that this a community dedicated to and appreciative of the nature around it. However, recent import restrictions from China as a part of the ongoing “trade war” have brought to light a serious environmental problem in Marin: recycling.

In past years, China has purchased over 60 percent of all recycling in California, according to Plastics Recycling Update, and in turn processed all the materials, saving California the added work. Now, China is no longer a viable option for this outsourcing of labor, as they have stated their processing plants will only accept materials that have 0.5 percent contamination or less. This policy aims to protect Chinese factory workers in an ongoing effort to shift the Chinese government’s stance on the environment that includes better working conditions for those in factories.

Kimberly Scheibly, Director of Compliance & Customer Relations for Marin Sanitary Service, believes that China’s withdrawal from the California recycling system is a major blow to recycling in California. The effects are especially felt in Marin, where the countywide recycling rate of 40 percent is far short of the state-mandated 75 percent for all counties by the year 2020.

“Most of our market has been China, so they buy almost all of our material. We don’t really have any other markets in California,” Scheibly said. “We’re just crossing our fingers hoping that markets will open up a little bit so we can move our material.”

With China no longer an option for the exporting of recycled material, recycling services in Marin have been forced to keep it all.
With China no longer an option for the exporting of recycled material, recycling services in Marin have been forced to keep it all.

The material that Scheibly referenced is currently stacked high above the ground in the lot behind Marin Sanitary Service, and it’s growing every day. With nowhere to sell the recycling to, the company has been forced to keep it. Other companies in the area face similar issues, and Steve Devine, Program Manager of the Waste Management Division at Zero Waste Marin, noted that companies in the area are beginning to crack down on recycling policies as those issues continues to grow.

“Each company has its own dos and don’ts list that they convey to their customers as far as what can and cannot be put into their recycling programs, and some of what we’re seeing is those lists are getting more strict,” Devine said.

Devine said that although Zero Waste Marin is more of a supervisor for recycling in the county, they too have ways for consumers to reduce their waste.

“We’re certainly monitoring the situation. A lot of what we do at Zero Waste Marin is a campaign going called ‘Shop Smart Waste Less,’” Devine said. “In most instances you can buy products that can reduce waste to begin with, so you might have an opportunity to use a reusable product instead of something that is disposable even if it’s recyclable.”

Scheibly said that reducing consumer waste is always a priority, but it can be challenging to get people on the right track. However, she thinks Marin Sanitary Service may have a solution.

“People really want to do the right thing with what they purchase but they just don’t know what is recyclable and what isn’t,” Scheibly said. “For now, we’re working on an app that customers can … put in whatever the item [is] and it will tell you ‘It goes in the landfill container’ or ‘It goes in this side of the [recycling] bin.’”

Workers at Marin Sanitary Service work hard to sort all the recycled material that passes through their building.
Workers at Marin Sanitary Service work hard to sort all the recycled material that passes through their building.

The app is called ‘Where’s It Go, Joe?’ in a nod to the company’s owner Joe Garabino, but has not yet been released to the public. It is being developed by ReCollect, a tech company that has already made several products designed to promote recycling.

Sustainable Agriculture and Advanced Placement Environmental Science teacher Joe Stewart also recognized the current crisis and said that Marin has had problems in the past with waste management.

“Marin has, at times, been the largest per-capita waste production county in the United States,” Stewart said. “We do want to think about reducing our trash but also our recycling. The best thing to do is just not produce waste at all. We are producing too much waste.”

Stewart also said that recycling, while it is better than the traditional landfill, is not an end-all-be-all solution to waste in general.

“There’s only so much space. There’s no such thing as away. We can throw things away but it’s still there,” Stewart said.

Redwood’s Environmental Action Club, which is supervised by Stewart, ran an initiative last year than involved placing recycling bins in the CEA to promote sustainability. Senior Gabe Johnson, who was a member of the club last year and plans on continuing this year, said that despite the club’s best intentions there’s still work to be done.

“A lot of the stuff that comes with our lunches here is recyclable so if you have a recycling bin then you can [put] this stuff away,” Johnson said. “One problem is a lot of people still aren’t recycling … so I think the game plan this year is to create a lot of posters, just get the word out there that the stuff you have can be recycled because it makes such a big difference.”

Devine said Zero Waste Marin also believes in the practice of waste management over recycling, as it helps to reduce strains on the environment and keep harmful materials out of nature.

“Recycling a lot of times can kind of be a cop-out in terms of making it someone else’s problem. Recycling is generally better than landfilling or incineration but there’s still environmental impacts,” Devine said. “In terms of the hierarchy of reduce, reuse and recycle, waste reduction and reusing is way more important than the recycling piece.”

Though reducing and reusing are more effective, Stewart said recycling is still much better than the alternative of landfilling.

“Our landfill [in Novato] is expected to be full within the next couple of years,” Stewart said. “There’s a finite amount of resources on the planet so by recycling, instead of them ending up in a place where they’re not usable, they end up in a place where they are usable.”

Marin Sanitary Service has accumulated quite the assortment of recyclable material, from cans to plastic bags.
Marin Sanitary Service has accumulated quite the assortment of recyclable material, from cans to plastic bags.

Scheibly said that while consumers can alleviate the situation, higher-level changes are necessary in order for recycling to continue being sustainable.

“I think consumers can buy materials that have recycled content in them. Take more time to look over the product, look over the package,” Scheibly said. “To solve this problem, it’s really going to take a lot of things happening all together and manufacturers being responsible for the products that they make. They have to know what’s going to happen at the end of its life.”

Both Scheibly and Devine said that creating more local opportunities for processing recycling will be crucial to California’s quest to remain green, as foreign markets are no longer available.

“Hopefully what’s going on currently will be a wakeup call to look for opportunities to bring some of the recyclable processing capabilities back more locally so that there will be more reliable options and outlets for material,” Devine said.

Johnson said that it is important for students in high school to take action to help fight climate change, even if they don’t see immediate gratification.

“This whole environmental issue, its so big, that attacking it is really hard especially when these kid are in high school,” Johnson said. “A lot of people are like ‘I don’t want to go out of my way’ because they don’t see the effects of climate change on their own lives … [but] when you recycle it saves so much energy because things don’t need to be remade, you don’t need to get the raw materials.”