China's recycling restrictions hit U.S. towns

The latest trade disputes between the U.S. and China have focused on items like steel, aluminum and agricultural goods.

But there's another trade crisis that's getting somewhat less attention: The trade in recyclables. 

Since January, when China tightened the standards for the waste it would accept, its imports of solid waste have dropped by more than 50 percent, according to Xinhua, a state-owned news agency. That's a problem for many U.S. municipalities that have grown used to relying on China for recycling needs.

In Monterey, California, the regional waste processing facility has told residents to stop disposing of plastic bags, since they no longer have a way to recycle them.

"Markets still exist for most materials. But plastic film, we basically can't find a market for it — plastic bags, bread bags, newspaper bags, things like that," said Jeff Lindenthal, the director of sustainability and communications for the Monterey Regional Waste Management District.

He added, "The opening of our state-of the-art $24 million procession facility coincided with the collapse of the global recycling market."

The facility can still accept most rigid plastics for recycling, Lindenthal said, but it's struggling with what some people have called "aspirational recycling."

"There was an attitude in the industry over the last decade of 'when in doubt, put it in the recycling bin, and we'll figure it out on the back end.' The industry is doing an about-face now," Lindenthal said.

China's new standards impose drastic new rules for the level of "contamination," or non-recyclables, acceptable in a shipment. The most a plastic bale can contain is one-tenth of one percent.

"A couple of sneakers end up in a bale of plastic bottles and they could reject the whole thing," Lindenthal said. For some cities in Monterey county, the contamination level is as high as 30 percent, he said.

States across the nation are grappling with similar issues. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo this week ordered a review of the recycling market against a backdrop of skyrocketing costs. In June, a large center in Albany announced it would charge twice as much to accept recyclables as regular waste, the Albany Times Union reported. Several municipalities have ended pickup of recyclables, citing the cost, and one county has asked the state to loosen recycling mandates.