A Shift in Global Markets Has Made It Harder and Costlier to Recycle in the Chippewa Valley

Tom Giffey, photos by Michael Barera

A materials recovery facility in Michigan.
A materials recovery facility in Michigan.

Over the years, recycling has gotten easier for most of us in Wisconsin. Gone are the days of sorting glass by color, of bundling newspapers with twine, of carefully crushing aluminum cans and toting them to a recycling center to be weighed. Curbside collection has made recycling a no-brainer: If a material looks recyclable, we just toss it in the bin for our trash hauler to collect. This single stream process is simple and gives us the warm glow of having done something good for Mother Earth. Could it be any easier?

No, it couldn’t. In fact, recycling should probably be harder.

A combination of consumer complacency, misinformation, and a changing international marketplace mean that the presumably recyclable materials you set on the curb on trash day may not be getting recycled at all. They may end up making a costly trip to a landfill – just like all your non-recyclable trash. The reasons are literally as close are your own kitchen and as far away as China.

MEET THE MRF

“This is a nationwide issue,” said Heidi Boxx, co-owner of Eau Claire-based Boxx Sanitation. “We tried so hard to make recycling easier for people. We said, ‘Put it all in the same container, err on the side of thinking it’s recyclable.’ ”
Over time, this attitude has led to what those in the industry call “wish-cycling” – putting non-recyclable items in the recycling bin based on the assumption that they can be recycled. If No. 1 and 2 plastics can be recycled, we figure, why not those labeled No. 6? Why not plastic shopping bags? What about that greasy pizza box? It’s cardboard, after all!

The trouble is that these items – and many others – aren’t actually recyclable (or at least not at the curbside). Yet we put them in our recycling bins, whose contents get mixed in with the contents of everyone else’s bins. All this would-be recycling is loaded onto a truck and sent to a materials recovery facility, or MRF. There, loads of recycling are dumped onto conveyor belts and sorted by humans and machines, some of the latter using lasers that can differentiate between different kinds of materials. Human sorters try to remove contaminants, which can cause machinery to grind to a halt. 

Plastic bags and film are especially problematic, said Jamie Pappas, co-owner of Earthbound Environmental Solutions in Eau Claire. Such plastics are recyclable in Eau Claire County, but not at the curbside: Instead, consumers should set these aside and drop them off at stores, such as supermarkets, that accept them. “Many times our supporters go above and beyond when it comes to waste separation, but there is still a long path ahead of us,” said Pappas, whose company offers curbside trash, recycling, and compost collection. “We continue to see non-recyclable items in the recycling waste stream so we continue to educate folks so they make the right choice.”

THE SWORD FALLS

Once recyclable materials are sorted and baled, they are shipped from the MRF to another processor who might, for example, turn all those plastic bottles into picnic tables.

Until a couple of years ago, many of the processors receiving America’s recyclables were overseas, primarily in China. Shipping containers that arrived at U.S. ports full of Chinese-made good were returned to the Far East full of bales of recycled plastic. 

But, beginning on Jan. 1, 2018, the Chinese government enacted a new policy – dubbed “National Sword” – that severely restricted the importing of recyclables. Motivated in part by a desire to better recycle its own trash and partly by the increasing levels of contamination in those loads of foreign recycling, China banned 24 kinds of foreign waste and tightened contamination limits to 0.5 percent, according to a Public Radio International report.

And this is where Americans’ cavalier attitude toward curbside recycling comes in. All that “wish-cycling” means we’re throwing lots of trash into our recycling bins, and if it isn’t weeded out by workers or machines at the MRFs it’s being bundled up with actual recyclables. As a Waste Management official told Waste Dive, an industry publication, last year, materials coming into MRFs may be 15% to 25% contaminated. If a load of recycling is too contaminated, the MRF can’t handle it, a waste hauler must pay to have it disposed of in a landfill – a cost that may be passed on to consumers.

Furthermore, in the past trash haulers were more likely to be paid for the materials they recycled, which meant that recycling was actually a money-maker for them. However, as overseas markets have dried up, now they are more likely to have to pay the MRF to take it off their hands. These prices have risen, too: A couple of years ago, Boxx Sanitation was paying $5 or $10 per ton of recycling. By last month, the fee had risen to $85 per ton.

“It’s classic economics – supply and demand,” Heidi Boxx said. “If we have an overabundance of newspaper to recycle … they’re not going to pay as much as they did before to take your newspaper.”

WHEN IN DOUBT ...

So what can be done? Considering that recycling is a national and global issue, we can hope that investment in America’s recycling infrastructure will increase – and, reportedly, that’s already happening. Closer to home, Boxx offers an oft-repeated bit of advice: “When in doubt, throw it out.”  That non-recyclable item you put in your bin could end up gumming up the machinery at an MRF or tainting a large load of recyclables, causing all of them to be buried into a landfill. 

Boxx also hopes that Americans focus on reducing the among of trash we produce. She points to efforts to eliminate single-use plastic items, such as drinking straws. “I think people want to do the right thing,” Boxx said of our recycling habits. “They want to recycle, they want to contribute to that cause.” The key is doing it the right way.

“Misunderstanding and overall consumption are the two biggest challenges that we face,” agreed Pappas of Earthbound Environmental. “The rate at which we consume resources to create such waste is alarming, and then on top of that a significant amount of this waste ends up in the landfill due to not being disposed of properly. Consumers making conscious decisions about the products they are purchasing is a significant step to helping this issue.”

SO WHAT CAN BE RECYCLED?

Want to know what you can recycle? The best place to start is with your county recycling program. In Eau Claire County, go to www.co.eau-claire.wi.us and type “Recycling” into the search bar. There, you’ll find a recycling guide listing materials that can – and cannot – be recycled, as well as information on annual Clean Sweep events, electronics recycling, and more. 

Because recycling guidelines may vary from trash hauler to trash hauler, you may also direct questions to the private company that picks up your trash. In the Eau Claire area, private trash haulers include Advanced Disposal, Boxx Sanitation, Earthbound Environmental Services, and Waste Management.