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‘Can we save recycling?’

China’s decision to buy less material from the U.S. has made recycling unprofitable for local companies

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In January 2018, China stopped accepting a lot of the U.S. recycled materials it once bought.

Now, local communities are seeing the effects.

Brian Gift, director of La Salle County environmental services and land use department, said some services have stopped offering recycling outside of municipalities.

“The paper and plastic were always kind of borderline and not very profitable as far as recycling goes,” Gift said. “In some cases, it could be more expensive to recycle than just throw them in the landfill.”

Shawn Harre, general manager at Buckman Iron and Metal Co., said China’s decision is driving down the price for the cardboard, paper, copper and aluminum.

“With them not taking as much from other people, it has made an oversupply of material here in the United States,” Harre said. “There are more materials than the mills need, which has driven the price down.”

Scott Anderson, owner of Cimco Recycling in Ottawa, said when China stepped out of the market, a lot of materials like cardboard, plastics and metals began backing up in this country.

“The pricing structure has collapsed,” Anderson said. “With lower prices, the profit margin gets lower and lower.”

Anderson said his company is watching its expenses and trying to handle larger volumes, but that’s hard to do in rural areas.

“If these changes end up becoming more permanent, a lot of these items that have been recyclable will end up the landfill,” Anderson. “It’s no longer affordable to pay for collection, sorting, processing, shipping and handling.”

4,000 containers a day

Jim Pozzi, municipal services manager for Republic Services, said the U.S. used to send 4,000 recycling containers a day to China.

“The U.S. used to send roughly 40% of our material, and now we send less than 1% to China,” Pozzi said.

China used to be the No. 1 buyer of recycling material in the world.

“We’ve been able to find smaller, alternative markets,” Pozzi said. “However, they’re not able to take near the amount that China was taking. What’s that led to is basically a backlog of recyclable materials.”

The recycling that Republic Services picks up from curbsides in many local cities gets sent to a Resource Management sorting facility in Plainfield.

“We bring it back to our transfer station at the landfill in Ottawa and then we load it up in to a bigger truck that goes to Resource Management,” Pozzi said. “From there, it’s emptied onto their floor and they push it into these big sorting machines and sort it from there.”

Before the Chinese ban, recycling facilities would pay Republic Services for the material because it was worth something.

“That rebate would help offset the cost of the recycling processing charge, and it would offset some of the cost for the hauler to actually provide their service,” Pozzi said. “Once the Chinese ban took effect and the market basically spiraled down, all that is left is the recycling process charge; there is no rebate anymore.

Those facilities are struggling to find outlets for their material, so they’re continually raising their prices.

“Right now, if you plug in the cost to get rid of the material, plus the cost to transport it to that facility, we’re paying almost double to get rid of recycling than it costs us to bury trash,” Pozzi said.

Before the ban took effect, Republic Services was able to get money for about 64% of all the recyclables that were brought in. Since the ban, only 35% of recyclables offer a profit.

Pozzi said there is no market for mixed plastics and mixed paper. He said clean, corrugated cardboard offers a low value.

“The question should be at this point in time: Can we save recycling?” Pozzi said. “If there’s no outlet for it, and the costs are too high to get rid of it, companies are going to stop doing it.”

Brynn Twait can be reached at (815) 220-6932 or perureporter@newstrib.com. Follow her on Twitter @NT_Peru.

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Brynn Twait works as a reporter covering the City of Peru. She can be reached at (815) 220-6932 or perureporter@newstrib.com.

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