Have you ever wondered where the recyclables go after they leave the large receptacles in the parking lot of the nearest department store or the blue bins at the curb outside your home?
Until about five months ago, China was the recipient of most materials recycled not just in places like East Idaho but across many Western nations of the globe.
But since China implemented a broad antipollution campaign in January that banned 24 kinds of solid waste from entering its borders — including all plastic scrap and unsorted mixed paper — people like Rick Gillihan, the general manager of Western Recycling in Boise, have been flummoxed by growing inventories and floored export markets.
While Gillihan and other local recycling officials are confident curbside recycling programs in East Idaho will find a way to survive and adapt, the costs of recycling in the area is increasing and may be passed on to residents.
“China’s ban on many imports of recyclables into their country has had a devastating effect on recycling programs across the nation,” Gillihan told the Journal during a phone interview earlier this month. “In lieu of that ban, everybody is scrambling to find homes for this material.”
A recent article in the New York Times suggested that, in some cases, much of the recycled material in places like “Oregon and parts of Idaho, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii” has ended up in landfills.
But Western, a company that recycles approximately 3,500 tons of material every month from several communities throughout East Idaho and the Treasure Valley, has been fortunate enough to find landfill alternatives, albeit at an additional cost, Gillihan said.
“We have been able to find homes for this material in places like Malaysia, India or Vietnam, but those countries are just getting flooded with material. Therefore, the price has been driven through the floor,” Gillihan said. “Unfortunately pricing stinks and in some cases we have had to pay to get rid of this stuff — it is definitely a buyer’s market right now.”
Take the Pocatello recycling program and contract with Western for example.
Like many municipal recycling programs, consumers in Pocatello place all sorts of recyclable materials into curbside bins. Then, that material is delivered as is to the Pocatello collection facility where it is baled and shipped to Boise. From there, the bales of material are broken open, sorted into various grades and then baled again before it’s exported to a consuming mill — oftentimes overseas. This process is known as single-stream recycling.
Debbie Brady, the recycling coordinator for the city of Pocatello, told the Journal that the city currently pays Western $70 for each ton of recycled material every month.
When the contract between Pocatello and Western began on Jan. 1, 2016, China’s ban was still two years out. At the time, China was responsible for 55 percent of global recovered fiber imports and 51 percent of scrap plastic imports, according to data from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.
Now that China has vowed to no longer be what multiple sources has called the “world’s garbage dump,” and with the contract between Western and the city of Pocatello expiring on Dec. 31, consumers can likely expect one of two repercussions: the termination of local curbside recycling collection programs or a rate increase to cover the additional export losses.
“We only paid about $12,000 for recycling fees in the month of April,” Brady said. “If we had been billed the full amount of what it actually cost to unload the material we would have paid over $31,000.”
Brady continued, “Our contract says we only pay $70 per ton of material every month but we could actually be paying up to $168 per ton.”
In addition to Pocatello, Western provides curbside recycling for Rexburg, Chubbuck, Idaho Falls and most of the Treasure Valley.
With recycling companies paying the difference, Gillihan said, “There are already programs that are being shut down. It’s not uncommon for a municipality to decide that it’s too expensive to recycle and discontinue their programs.”
Though Brady said the city sanitation department has enough money in reserves to fund the recycling program for an additional fiscal year, a study session with the Pocatello City Council on June 14 will allow Western Recycling and Pocatello to renegotiate a more equitable contract.
The price Pocatello pays to haul materials to the landfill, which at a cost of $29 per ton is less than half of what it costs to recycle, might be one determining factor in the contract discussion.
“Fortunately we are at the end of our rate study, too,” Brady said. “We haven’t had to increase rates in several years, but at the end of this fiscal year we are figuring a 3 percent rate increase.”
While rate increases will provide the recycling industry with a temporary reprieve, Gillihan said that the future of recycling ultimately relies on two things: preventing items from contaminating recycle streams so that processing mills are more inclined to purchase the material and building more domestic infrastructure to soften the export overhead.
“The bottom line is we have to get this material cleaned up and we have to make that happen at the curb,” Gillihan said. “We are getting material in that is 15 percent trash and we can’t clean it up enough to make it a real desirable product right now.”
Gillihan said the main type of contaminant found at Western is a ton of plastic film.
“Primarily grocery bags,” he said, adding that, “Any type of flexible film was never intended to be in the program in the first place but over time we’ve seen more and more of it.”
Plastic film significantly affects the operation of recycling sorting equipment because it wraps around pulleys and belts and plugs up the machines, and it’s really just a rogue material — it goes everywhere, Gillihan said.
“The material needs to be cleaned up and we can’t do it mechanically by ourselves,” Gillihan said. “We need help at the curb.”
Gillihan’s advice: Think twice or check with your recycling company before tossing the takeout box with remnants of last night’s pad thai, shrink wrap, sandwich bags, trash bags and beverage-crusted red party cups into the recycling bin.
And instead of relying on places like China or other Asian countries as the primary sources to unload recyclables, finding more suitable mills to reprocess the materials is Gillihan’s long-term solution.
“We need more infrastructure to consume these materials — whether it’s done here domestically or offshore makes no difference, but somewhere we need that infrastructure put in place and you just can’t do that overnight,” Gillihan said. “It takes time to get a mill constructed to consume this mixed paper product.”
Gillihan continued, “This is a global problem, it truly is. This will be a lingering problem for quite some time. I’m afraid we have some rough seas ahead of us before it gets any better.”