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Waste Piles Up in San Jose as China Limits Recycling Imports

Paper and plastics tossed by U.S. consumers into their blue bins each week have been piling up or trucked to landfills and incinerators ever since China stopped accepting contaminated recyclables earlier this year.

Now, municipalities like San Jose—and ultimately residents—are stuck with the tab.

The City Council on Tuesday will discuss the impacts of China’s so-called “National Sword” policy, which banned the import of 24 types of recyclable materials and reduced the level of acceptable contamination to a half-percent per bale. That means throwing a fluid-filled bottle, a takeout container or other piece of trash in the recycling bin can render an entire multi-ton load unsellable.

San Jose, which provides recycling and trash pickup to more than 320,000 homes, oversees one of the largest privatized solid waste systems in the nation with a yearly budget of $115 million.

Local haulers say China’s new restrictions have slashed revenue per ton of mixed paper from $160 in March of 2017 to $3 in the same month this year. To ease the financial burden on San Jose’s recyclers, California Waste Solutions and GreenWaste, the city will consider waiving financial penalties if the contractors fail to divert the required amounts of reusable materials from the landfill.

State CalRecycle officials issued a letter advising companies how to manage the backed-up materials to reduce fire risk, water damage and pests. More importantly, manufacturers, consumers and local governments need to figure out how to reduce waste before it enters the curbside bins.

“For example, manufacturers can reduce unnecessary packaging on products, consumers can choose to use reusable instead of single use, disposable products, and local government can procure products with recycled content,” CalRecycle Director Scott Smithline wrote in a letter to California cities earlier this year. “Waste prevention has the potential to reduce reliance on foreign markets, as there is no need to export what California has not generated.”

Meanwhile, global market vulnerabilities combined with tighter regulations here at home might require San Jose to come up with an entirely new procurement frameworkfor recycling, according to city Environmental Services Director Kerrie Romanow...

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