Changes to China’s recycling rules are starting to hurt revenues for Williamson County recycling programs

Changes to China’s recycling rules are starting to hurt revenues for Williamson County recycling programs

CORRECTION: In addition to type one and two plastics, Franklin will still accept paper, cardboard, cans and tin for recycling.


Changes to China’s rules about importing recyclable materials are starting to hurt revenues for recycling programs in Williamson County.

In early 2018, China enacted policies that greatly restricted the types of trash and recycling it would accept. Many places in the United States used to export large quantities of their recyclables to China, but the changes have made that harder.

The trade publication Plastics Recycling Update reported that exports of plastic scrap fell by 35 percent last year. In 2017, the U.S. sent about a third of all plastic scrap to China, but after the regulatory changes that number fell to about 5 percent.

Nancy Zion, the director of the Williamson County Solid Waste department, said the contents of most recycling bins in Middle Tennessee were never going to China, but the new regulations are still having a big effect.

The regulations have made it harder for other places to export recyclables. That means there’s now a lot more plastic that needs to be recycled by companies in the U.S.

“We have all these plastic recyclables sitting around baled on docks all over the country. The domestic recyclers can only handle so much,” Zion said.

Williamson County sells its recyclables to a processor, but the glut of recycled material caused by the new regulations in China is making the county’s waste less valuable.

“Our revenue stream has dropped dramatically,” she said. “We’re still recycling, of course. It’s still domestic markets, but the revenue is down.”

She said it still makes sense to keep recycling because it’s cheaper than putting the waste in a landfill.

Franklin’s Sanitation and Environmental Services Director Jack Tucker said the changes in China are also starting to trickle down to Franklin, and the city is considering some changes.

Franklin doesn’t sell its recyclables. A processor in Marshall County takes the city’s recyclables for free, which the company can then sell for a profit. Tucker hopes the city can maintain that relationship by providing valuable recycling.

He recently recommended switching from collecting recycling in blue plastic bags to hard sided carts. That change should make the city’s recycling cleaner, and cheaper to process.

In addition, the sanitation department has proposed scaling back the types of recycling it would accept. Tucker said once the bins are in place the city would only accept type one and two plastics.

“In all honesty those are really the only two you really can deem recyclable in today’s market,” he said. “The higher the number the more complicated chemistry is involved in how it’s made.”

In addition to those plastics, Franklin will still accept paper, cardboard, cans and tin.

While the new regulations might force some Williamson County recycling programs to change, Zion said the real solution to the problem of waste is to use less stuff. That strategy is much more effective than recycling.

She said Williamson County residents should look for ways that they can easily reduce the amount of waste they produce.

“Most people can’t do everything. Do what you can. Take your own bags to the store. Some people like to compost rather than landfill,” she said. “Everybody’s got something that’s really easy for them to do. Do that.”

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