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Since China implemented its National Sword Policy in January 2018, municipal recycling programs across the United States have been figuring out how to adjust to stricter contamination limits and fewer export opportunities.

In 2019, the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials (ASTSWMO), Washington, and its Sustainable Materials Management Task Force analyzed how states and municipalities across the U.S. were faring one year after National Sword went into effect. The task force surveyed state and territorial solid waste program staff members throughout most of 2019 to track the actions that have been taken to help municipal recycling on a regional level. According to ASTSWMO, representatives from 48 states and territories responded to the survey. Task force members compiled the survey findings in February of this year.

ASTSWMO also has assembled case studies and examples of how states and municipalities responded to National Sword, which task force members shared during a webinar July 16. Actions taken by states and municipalities included changing compliance standards, recycling research initiatives, recycling education initiatives, municipal recycling program changes, introducing regulatory changes and developing new end markets for residential recyclables.

Compliance actions

Several states and localities reported that they have enforced compliance requirements for municipal recycling programs since National Sword went into effect. In particular, the survey’s findings indicated that Massachusetts has been actively analyzing the effectiveness of cart tagging.

“With things changing because of China, understanding what’s going on in the market is of interest.” – Jeremy Hooper, a member of ASTSWMO’s Sustainable Materials Management Task Force

About three years ago, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) developed its Recycling IQ Kit grant program in collaboration with The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia. Since 2017, MassDEP has provided direct assistance to communities struggling with high contamination levels via the Recycling IQ Kit program, which offers proven methodology, money to pay cart inspectors’ salaries and outreach materials, as well as technical assistance to implement the program. To date, 25 communities in Massachusetts have used the state’s Recycling IQ Kit program. MassDEP reports that six additional communities are participating this year.

As part of Recycling IQ Kit requirements, grantee communities are required to tag carts with contamination on targeted routes for eight consecutive collection cycles. For their final report, the communities need to average their tagging rates across all routes, and MassDEP then finds the delta between the last week of tagging and the first to determine whether contamination has been reduced.

MassDEP says it has seen a “remarkable improvement in the quality of material going into residents’ recycling bins” as a result of the Recycling IQ Kit program. Based on data gathered from participating municipalities in 2018 and 2019, the communities noticed contamination reductions ranging from 21 percent to 86 percent.

During the ASTSWMO webinar, James Jennings, a member of ASTSWMO’s Sustainable Materials Management Task Force and an employee with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, said this case study illustrates a strong desire among residents to recycle right.

Researching and investing in end markets

Many states and local governments also have been researching collection models, what materials to recycle, end-market opportunities, governance and funding models for recycling. For instance, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has entered into several memorandums of understanding with state universities to research recycling contamination, end-market opportunities, alternatives to paper and plastics recycling and behavioral science around recycling and waste education.

During the webinar, Janine Bogar, a member of ASTSWMO’s Sustainable Materials Management Task Force and solid waste management program planner for the Department of Ecology in the state of Washington, said the New York Department of Environmental Conservation partnered with the Pollution Prevention Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2018 to look at the effects of expanding the state’s bottle bill to include wine and liquor bottles. She said the department also is considering launching a sustainable materials management center to serve as a hub in New York for research and technology to address waste reduction and recycling.

Many states also have been researching and providing incentives for recycling market development.

“Market involvement is huge right now,” said Jeremy Hooper, a member of ASTSWMO’s Sustainable Materials Management Task Force and an employee at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, during the webinar. “With things changing because of China, understanding what’s going on in the market is of interest.”

Hooper said Michigan has a $15 million annual budget for recycling market development grants. According to Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the state increased its funding for state recycling efforts from $2 million in 2018 to $15 million in 2019. Per House Bill 4991, state recycling efforts now receive $15 million through the Renew Michigan Fund. Within the $15 million budget, the state also awards annual grants ranging from $50,000 to $400,000 to recycling infrastructure projects.

The state awarded $1.23 million in recycling infrastructure grants in 2019, he said. The awards have been going to projects that involve recycling research and testing, marketing, recycling analysis and data collection, sorting and processing equipment investments, recycled content product commercialization and targeted partnership projects.

Increasing education

Most states and municipalities that ASTSWMO surveyed have taken some sort of action designed to increase education around municipal recycling in the last two years.

Based on survey findings, the verbiage used in many recycling education campaigns has been consistent across the U.S.

“The campaigns being developed or supported at the state level all seemed to have similar taglines, such as ‘Recycle Right’ or ‘Recycle Smart,’ encouraging participants on the correct items to put in their program to hopefully reduce ‘wishcycling,’” Adam Schlachter, a member of ASTSWMO’s Sustainable Materials Management Task Force and waste facilities group manager with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said during the July 16 webinar.

Schlachter said New Jersey took its recycling education campaign one step above the norm by partnering with the Recycle Coach app. Two years ago, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection entered into a three-year contract with Toronto-based Recycle Coach and licensed the app for all of the state’s cities and counties to use as a regional recycling guide.

As of this June, about 258 of the state’s municipalities and 19 of its counties actively have been participating with the Recycle Coach app. “The app helps provide clearer messaging opportunities to make sure the right recycling information goes to the right users,” Schlachter said. “They have seen a lot of success with this endeavor, and this supports their other statewide marketing efforts.”

Changing the program

ASTSWMO’s study confirmed that some states and municipalities have removed materials from recycling programs, and other localities admitted to landfilling recyclables in the survey. Some localities have stopped recycling programs altogether since National Sword went into effect.

Several survey respondents said they experienced successes with switching from single-stream to dual-stream programs in recent years. In northern California, Mill Valley Refuse Service reported success in switching its single-stream collection service to a dual-stream collection service in August 2019.

According to a 2019 report from Mill Valley Refuse Service, the company noticed rising tipping fees at processing plants in response to National Sword in recent years. The hauler discovered that it could lower its tipping fee costs if it switched to Marin Sanitary Service, San Rafael, California, as its processing plant partner. However, Marin Sanitary Service operates a dual-stream material recovery facility, and Mill Valley Refuse Service previously only offered single-stream recycling collection services.

To lower tipping fee costs, the hauler switched to dual-stream recycling collection and partnered with Marin Sanitary Service in August 2019. Mill Valley continued to use the same trucks after the switch but has been alternating the types of recyclables collected—one week it collects paper, and the next it collects containers.

“[This] has resulted in cleaner, more valuable recyclables that is reducing overall costs,” said Angela Vincent, a member of ASTSWMO’s Sustainable Materials Management Task Force and a legislative manager of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, during the webinar.

New regulations

More states are considering regulatory action to help municipal recycling programs. Bogar said survey findings indicate that 10 states introduced bills that would address export impacts on U.S. recycling efforts in the past year. She says more legislative action tends to be occurring in coastal regions.

In June, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed HB 73 into law after it received approval from the state’s top legislative officers and unanimous passage in both chambers of the legislature early in 2020. The bill requires Florida counties and municipalities to address nonhazardous contamination in recyclables in contracts with haulers or MRFs. Under this legislation, haulers are not required to transport items that are defined by the local community as “contaminated recycling materials,” and MRFs would not be required to process these materials.

Taking action

According to ASTSWMO’s research, most states have taken action of some sort in response to China’s National Sword Policy. Based on responses to the association’s 2019 survey, at least 35 states have taken action in the last two years to improve recycling efforts, be it compliance measures, education, end-market development or program changes. The examples listed above are just some of the many ways that states and municipalities are navigating the changing recycling landscape.

The author is the managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at msmalley@gie.net.