At the end of the line at the Atlantic County Utilities Authority is a pile of rejected items. On top sits a hula hoop.
It is clearly not recyclable, but someone put it into curbside recycling.
Large and easy to spot, it’s not the most problematic of the contamination that comes through regularly, according to Plant Manager Leo Bustos, of Mays Landing.
That would be plastic bags.
While technically recyclable, there is no market for them, he said.
“We get tons of them a month,” Bustos said. They must be hand-picked out of the waste stream. If not, they will contaminate either paper bales or other plastic bales, causing problems for the buyers of the materials.
Contamination like that caused China, long the main importer of the world’s waste, to enact more stringent rules about what it will accept for recycling.
The country started demanding higher-quality recyclables in 2013 and announced several months ago it will stop taking many types of plastics, unsorted paper and other materials in January. In a filing with the World Trade Organization, explaining a policy called National Sword, China cited too high a contamination level in what ends up there.
The Chinese imported 48 percent of the world’s plastic waste in 2015, according to Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries figures. That was 7.3 million metric tons of plastic scrap, said New Jersey Association of Recyclers Executive Director Marie Kruzan.
They imported 29.2 million metric tons of fiber, according to ISRI figures. That is half of the world’s paper, she said.
“That shows the dominance they have in the marketplace,” Kruzan said.
The country wants to stop being the world’s dumping ground and plans to soon rely on its own waste stream for recyclable materials.
Without China buying the world’s recyclables, where will they go?
The changes have forced many U.S. recycling programs to warehouse waste until they can find new buyers in the U.S. or other countries, Kruzan said.
But that hasn’t been the case at the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, Bustos said.
Most of the plastic it collects goes to recycling plants in the U.S., he said, and that has been the case for years.
Paper and cardboard still go to China, but the ACUA plant has been able to sort them to meet China’s stringent contamination rules, he said.
ACUA Vice President of Solid Waste Brian Lefke said there’s been a slowing in the movement of material, but it is all still going to a market.
Lefke said paper and cardboard make up 60 percent to 70 percent of the materials the plant handles. Plastics make up just about 4 percent, he said.
Hard plastic lids from drink bottles and other types of bottles are also problems and should be removed and thrown away before putting the bottles into recycling. They are made of a different type of plastic and are too small to bale.
“Different plastics melt at different temperatures,” Kruzan said. “Plastic bags (and caps) just ruin the equipment right now. They tangle it up and shut it down.”
As light as they are, the bags can end up mixed in with paper, causing headaches for plants that make recycled papers.
Other recycling programs in the state and U.S. haven’t been as able to adjust to China’s new rules, Kruzan said.
“In many instances (China) has already started refusing materials. Brokers are coming to mills and inspecting bales,” she said. “They won’t take it unless it meets China’s criteria. They are looking for less than 1 percent contamination.”
All recycling programs have to do a better job educating every homeowner and business, Kruzan said.
“In theory, everything is recyclable, but if there is no market for it (like plastic bags) it’s not really recyclable,” she said.
Domestic plants also have high quality requirements, and the ACUA plant has an optical reader to pull out all PET plastics such as water bottles (marked with number 1) for separate baling. Other types of plastic are sorted by hand, Bustos said.
Metals such as aluminum, scrap metal and tin also go to domestic plants, he said.
“The future is going to be cleaning up inbound tonnage. We are doing pretty well, but we can always do better,” Lefke said. “It’s a matter of continuing and stepping up education efforts.”