A West Central Sanitation truck picks up a recycling container along North Sixth Street in Mankato. Recent events, including China rejecting some U.S. materials, have led to an unprecedented decline in the number of profitable markets for paper, metal, glass and other recyclables. Photo by Pat Christman

MANKATO — Recycling companies call it the “end market,” and it’s where all your paper, metal, glass and other recyclables end up to be turned into new products. When demand for these products is strong, recycling can coast along on this free-market logic.

When it’s not, the recycling system begins to break down — or at least become more expensive.

“Recycling isn’t magic,” says Taylor Williamson, office manager for Willmar-based West Central Sanitation, which picks up waste and recycling in Mankato and North Mankato. “You can’t just take something with no value and find a use for it.”

The industry has long been cyclical, but recent events have led to an unprecedented decline in the number of profitable markets for paper, metal, glass and other recyclables.

China, long willing to buy even our most contaminated recycling, has rejected some types of plastic and paper and is reducing its acceptable contamination levels for other material to half a percent.

“This is very difficult to achieve,” said Julie Ketchum, who works in public affairs for Waste Management. This is because residents and businesses regularly mix recycling with non-recyclable material and food waste.

China’s moves led to a glut in recyclables, flooding the market and lowering prices. Some products, like mixed paper, have even gone into negative territory, Ketchum said. This means Waste Management has to pay to recycle them.

In some Western states that relied on Chinese importers most heavily, some recyclers have resorted to landfills, the New York Times reported. Some haulers will refuse to collect certain types of recycling, including glass and some types of plastic and paper.

The impact of these two inter-related issues — China’s higher standards for recycling and high levels of contamination — have created a crisis. Its ripple effects may eventually raise prices for everyone.

For decades, the public has been told to recycle as much as possible. For now, at least, that message is changing. Though some materials are still profitable, like rigid plastics, clean cardboard and most metals, the trash is becoming a more acceptable alternative.

“If you’re not sure, do what (waste disposal company) Republic (Services) said: 'When in doubt, throw it out,'” Williamson said.

Paying more?

Rate changes haven’t been discussed in Mankato and North Mankato, said West Central’s Williamson. But there’s reason to think they may be coming.

When recycling companies have to pay more to get rid of recyclables, these costs will eventually trickle down to consumers. Recycling is a utility, meaning its operations are supported by fees, as in drinking water and sewer systems.

As Ketchum said, “We’re at a tipping point with recycling, and we have to figure out ways to make it sustainable in the long term. That will likely mean we’ll all have to partner together and it will likely mean that we’ll all be paying more for a recycling system.”

Though they both use West Central Sanitation, Mankato and North Mankato send their recycling to different places.

In Mankato, virtually all recycling is taken to the Blue Earth County Recycling Center. It’s operated by Waste Management under contract with Blue Earth County, which pays about $185,000 a year for a location to accept any recycling from the county, said its environmental services director, Scott Fichtner.

From there, Waste Management takes the recyclables to a Twin Cities area facility where they’re sorted and prepared for recycling.

In North Mankato, recycling is taken to the Riverbend Recycling Center, where it’s prepared for shipping to Dem-Con, a Shakopee company. Dem-Con then bills the city of North Mankato.

Though North Mankato is more directly exposed to changes because it’s billed directly by an end user, residents of both cities may ultimately end up paying more.

What can you do?

It might be hard to see why it's in the interest of a regular person to help a recycling company preserve its bottom line. But keeping recycling free of contamination also will help keep costs low for everyone, the companies say.

“Recycling is only as valuable as the resources we’re looking to recycle,” Williamson said. “If what we’re putting in is making it difficult for the end processor, they charge the hauler more and the hauler charges the city more.”

On its “Recycle Often. Recycle Right.” website, Waste Management lists three simple rules: Recycle all empty plastic bottles, cans, paper and cardboard; keep food and liquid out of the recycling; and empty recyclables directly into the cart, without a plastic bag.

Recyclables don’t need to be perfectly clean, just enough to avoid contaminating other materials. For example, pizza boxes with too much grease can contaminate an entire load of recycling, said Ketchum of Waste Management. The company recommends using a spatula to scrape cans and jars or using a little water to shake loose most food residue.

Unfortunately, there are complications. Just because plastic has a recycling symbol — three arrows looping in a clockwise direction, called a Mobius loop — doesn’t mean it can be turned into a new product.

Plastic numbered 1, 2 and 5 can be recycled in the bin. No. 4 plastic, such as grocery bags, can often be returned to the store they were taken from. Plastic with another number — 3, 6, or 7 — can go in the trash.

Long-term wake-up call

As a falling tide reveals weaknesses that were there along, China’s recycling cutbacks have laid bare the problems with American recycling.

Despite the short-term shakeup, officials from Waste Management and West Central expressed hope that China’s actions will eventually create a more vibrant end market here.

Williamson said, “It’s always good to reuse your valuable resources, and if this gets us to refocus on what our valuable resources are, that’s a good thing.”

Still, there will be a lag time before new uses for recyclables develop. It takes years to get regulatory approval and build recycling facilities, Ketchum said.

“We are in a crisis mode now and the need for stronger end markets is immediate.”

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