Waste Piles Up in San Jose as China Limits Recycling Imports

UPDATE: Discussion about recycling contracts has been deferred to Sept. 18.

Paper and plastics tossed by U.S. consumers into their blue bins each week have been piling up or trucked to landfills and incinerators ever since China stopped accepting contaminated recyclables earlier this year.

Now, municipalities like San Jose—and ultimately residents—are stuck with the tab.

The City Council on Tuesday will discuss the impacts of China’s so-called “National Sword” policy, which banned the import of 24 types of recyclable materials and reduced the level of acceptable contamination to a half-percent per bale. That means throwing a fluid-filled bottle, a takeout container or other piece of trash in the recycling bin can render an entire multi-ton load unsellable.

San Jose, which provides recycling and trash pickup to more than 320,000 homes, oversees one of the largest privatized solid waste systems in the nation with a yearly budget of $115 million.

Local haulers say China’s new restrictions have slashed revenue per ton of mixed paper from $160 in March of 2017 to $3 in the same month this year. To ease the financial burden on San Jose’s recyclers, California Waste Solutions and GreenWaste, the city will consider waiving financial penalties if the contractors fail to divert the required amounts of reusable materials from the landfill.

State CalRecycle officials issued a letter advising companies how to manage the backed-up materials to reduce fire risk, water damage and pests. More importantly, manufacturers, consumers and local governments need to figure out how to reduce waste before it enters the curbside bins.

“For example, manufacturers can reduce unnecessary packaging on products, consumers can choose to use reusable instead of single use, disposable products, and local government can procure products with recycled content,” CalRecycle Director Scott Smithline wrote in a letter to California cities earlier this year. “Waste prevention has the potential to reduce reliance on foreign markets, as there is no need to export what California has not generated.”

Meanwhile, global market vulnerabilities combined with tighter regulations here at home might require San Jose to come up with an entirely new procurement framework for recycling, according to city Environmental Services Director Kerrie Romanow.

More from the San Jose City Council agenda for August 21, 2018:

  • The city will spend $1.1 million in construction tax revenue to build a new park with a dog run between Alum Rock Avenue and East San Antonio Street off of Highway 101.
  • San Jose may offer its official support for a proposed state bill that would prevent landlords from turning away prospective tenants who rely on publicly subsidized rent vouchers. AB 2219 introduced by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) would help prevent some San Jose tenants from becoming homeless, according to city Housing Director Jacky Morales-Ferrand, who recommends supporting the bill. “Having landlords in our market that accept payments that benefit low-income and formerly homeless people is critical to preventing homelessness in our city,” she wrote in a memo to the council.
  • The Blue Whale Sailing School in Alviso fell behind on its property taxes, which gave the Santa Clara Valley Water District a chance to purchase the site. The city is supposed to help authorize the $58,500 sale, which will add to the water district’s flood control infrastructure.

WHAT: City Council meets
WHEN: 1:30pm Tuesday
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. > San Jose may offer its official support for a proposed state bill that would prevent landlords from turning away prospective tenants who rely on publicly subsidized rent vouchers.

    Any sociologists or demographers out there who can provide detailed and comprehensive analysis of the “prospective tenants who rely on publicly subsidized rent vouchers”

    What is their racial composition?
    What is their marital status?
    How many children do they have?
    What is their citizenship and/or immigration status?
    What is their political party affiliation? What candidates do they vote for?
    How much do they receive, per capita, in government cash benefits and subsidies?
    How many guns do they own?
    How many times have they been arrested? How much time have the spent in jail/prison/probation?

    We’re America. We can handle transparency.

  2. The solution, in one word: pyrolysis. Convert plastic back into its original crude oil, and use the crude oil for whatever you want.

  3. Good reporting. Hopefully you guys will FINALLY report on how inefficient carpool lanes are. They are making traffic worse by slowing everything down(since “Ass-Ok sticker” drivers cut everyone off), which causes more cars to idle, burning more gas and grinding on brakes, producing more air pollution.

    • i believe your correct… carpool lanes were fine in the 70’s when cars did not have much in emissions control. Today’s new cars produce 1/1000 or less from that era which authorized car pooling lanes. Even CARB admits on their website that they do not know if carpooling reduces air pollution . . well it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure this out. place air monitoring (24/7) equipment for say a year in congested highway areas, data available on line to the public, then next year temporary do away with car pooling and compare the data… in god we trust, everyone else bring data. ya know, we may be causing more air pollution, and don’t even know it. And let us not forget the state generates revenue for a single occupant to drive in a car pool lane!? btw, while i’m on the bandwagon, everyone notice their auto insurance rates going up? Did you know that after your required auto emission test, CA DMV sells your mileage/VIN/plates/name to a 3rd party aggregator ( aka TPPA ), which sells your information to, guess who, your auto insurance company… to see how many miles a year ya actually drive…wtf authorized this? ( i certainly didn’t ). Did we ( the people ) approve this in an election? And how much $$ is DMV making!!

    • Carpool OK cars are cancer on the highway. Its a money grabbing gimmick. Carpool is supposed to be two people or more, why the hell are they handing out a sticker coupon to drive on the carpool. They get tax exempts if they can afford a new green vehicle already. What about those who can’t afford a new vehicle but still carpool? I would pay to be able to drive on the carpool lane but whats the point? it runs as slow as the other lanes.

  4. I suggest the city consider using robotics to sort through the recycling to separate garbage from it and put each type of recyclable or reusable item where it belongs. Since the city is helping Google to expand into San Jose with the many complexities and burdens that brings, the city can ask Google to assign AI experts to research the use of robotics to sort thought recycling. Let me know if I can help.

  5. Re: “I suggest the city consider using robotics to sort through the recycling to separate garbage from it and put each type of recyclable or reusable item where it belongs.”

    That’s being done in a few places. The first commercial robotic waste sorting facility in the US is Recon Services in Austin, TX. That’s for construction waste. For residential recycling, Denver has a robotic system in test. Monterey County has an advanced system that just started up this year. It’s just about here.

  6. Has anyone looked at how Germany takes care of recycling problem!!!Maybe it’s a good time to check into some successful models out there. I lived there and Know a thing or two about it and just can tell it works amazingly. Our recycling system is a joke at its best comparing to theirs…

    • Ugh, that’s cause they just burn their trash, creating a bunch of CO2 while wasting huge amounts of reusable materials. Oh, and not to point out the ugly bug(VW’s diesel scam) in the corner, but German’s and their government flat out lie when it comes to environmental and health issues.

      • > but German’s and their government flat out lie when it comes to environmental and health issues.

        Oh, really!

        The “global warming narrative” is a flat out lie. The “climate models” which predict global warming are full of fibs and bogus assumptions (they ignore cloud effects because it’s just too hard to figure out). The historic temperature data has been cherry-picked, adjusted, flaked, formed, shaped, and doctored in every imaginable way. “Skeptical” climate scientists have been excluded from scientific conferences and been removed from academic positions. “Skeptical” scientific papers have been suppressed.

        The United States government lies about environmental and health issues. The UN IPCC lies. The European Union lies.

        “Global warming” is just a huge money spigot for politicians, NGO’s, and academia.

        It’s the endless gravy train that pays for, among other things, the Stupid California High Speed Rail. The crooks all know the scam and NO ONE is going to blow the con.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *