To the landfill? King County scrambles to keep up with China’s new recycling restrictions

SEATTLE -- One of King County's biggest dumps, the Cedar Hills Landfill, may fill up much quicker than expected as China tightens restrictions on what recyclables it allows into the country.

The King County Council met Wednesday to discuss the ramifications of China's 2017 decision -- known as the China Sword --  to ban imports of 24 different kinds of waste, including consumer plastic and unsorted papers.

According to a meeting brief, more previously recyclables materials will likely head to area landfills, and more people will throw away materials away due to confusion about recycling. Also, the county will see declining revenues for recyclables.

China has been a primary market for recyclable materials from the U.S. But with the new rules, mixed paper and low-grade plastics will no longer be sent to the country.

The new rules also impact for-profit recyclers in the area, as products like steel and aluminum are now more closely monitored. Brad Rinker, the owner of Northwest Metals and Salvage, said he's already had to turn things he'd normally take away from his recycling center.

"Just today I had to look at something I used to take," Rinker said. "I didn't because of the new rules."

As opportunities to recycle lessen, more people will head to the dump or worse, Rinker said.

"When people bring it to us, and if I have to charge them to clean material they want to get paid for," Rinker said, "they're either not going to do it, or they're going to take it to the dump who won't accept it. Or they're just going to leave it on the side of the highway."

King County officials said at least one private recycling hauler has asked to landfill recyclables, but it has not yet happened.

The Cedar Hills Landfill takes in around 800,000 tons of solid waste each year and had a projected capacity through 2028.

The county plans to create the Responsible Recycling Task Force with the hopes of outlining short and long-term solutions for China's restrictions.