Global recycling issues threaten to raise local costs

Lincoln County, North Carolina - Global free trade created opportunities to repurpose recycled materials in a way that disposed of recyclables in the United States and facilitated industrial development in China.

All of that changed in recent weeks when China banned the importation of U.S. recycling. Lincoln County Environmental Officer Robert Olsen said the action was taken because of issues relating to the time it takes to sort “contaminated” loads (batches of recycling that include non-recyclable materials such as plastic bags).

He added that other countries which import recycling are likely to follow suit, leading to more costs for haulers to handle the products. Haulers, in turn, would have to pass at least some of those costs on to customers.

“It could seriously raise the prices,” Olsen said. “We can’t be sure how much, but they’re bound to go up if countries stop shipments.”

He said materials used by industries within the United States are limited to just a portion of all materials eligible to be recycled.

Examples that are widely used at the domestic level include aluminum cans, cardboard, and glass. Many other items are mainly shipped overseas.

He added that homeowners can help to keep down recycling costs by following guidelines for what should be recycled and what should not be placed into collection containers.

Households and businesses need to be conscious of what they put into recycling,” Olsen said. “People who work in solid waste management have seen more of a public apathy for it in recent years. It all starts with the consumer.”

Lincoln County Commissioner Mic VanDeViere said global recycling issues are likely to affect bids for county recycling collection. Haulers faced with limited profit margins would need to bid higher, in a way that leads to higher solid waste assessments on tax bills.

Another possible implication is the cost of operating landfills. The multi-county regional landfill near Russell handles solid waste from a group of southwestern Minnesota counties. When the landfill became regional in 1993, smaller locals landfills were closed with the oversight of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

“One of my biggest concerns is that some products from recycling containers might just have to be placed into the landfill,” VanDeViere said. “There just isn’t any market for them.”

Dan Ritter of Southwest Sanitation in Marshall said he and other haulers share the same point of view as county, state and federal solid waste officials when it comes to the issue of stricter global recycling standards.

He said much of the burden for re-opening foreign trade markets has to be met by consumers and by recycling processors.

“We’re just the middle men,” Ritter said. “It gets harder to have a profit margin if some consumers aren’t following the rules. We also need more incentives at the state and federal level for industries to use recycled materials. Glass has potential in aggregates (mixes for road construction), but the incentives aren’t there to use it in aggregates.”

He added that glass is currently handled by haulers for no net profit. Cardboard offers a better margin because of uses in paper mills.

With a combination of expanded domestic use and maintaining a favorable level of recycling exports, he said it could be possible to continue a long term trend of stable consumer costs.

“Historically recycling has been helped by Asian consumption,” he said. “The loss of exports to China cuts into that. There isn’t enough industry within the United States to use everything we collect.”

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