Take a can and drink it, drop it in the bin.
Your last contact with recycling was just one more step in a much longer trip, one that started at a manufacturer, went to a warehouse, maybe a store, and then to your kitchen in Blaine County, Idaho. But with most recyclables, the sequence—if a viable one still exists—is only halfway done.
For most of 2018, the telltale triangle on paper, plastics, cardboard and metals has had recyclers running in circles.
Pinched by new rules out of China—far and away the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials—markets everywhere have struggled to adapt.
Blaine County’s program, which was forced to cut its mixed-paper recycling in May, is no exception.
“We can’t wave a magic wand and say this will be fixed overnight,” County Commissioner Larry Schoen said during a board meeting earlier this month. “It’s not just a local problem, or a national problem—it’s a global problem.”
The process is rarely neat. Your old water bottle isn’t going off to become your next water bottle. Products tossed in Blaine County become new products as varied as cardboard in Tacoma, Wash., and composite decking in Fernley, Nev. Sometimes, they end up overseas—or right back alongside your trash in Ohio Gulch.
Wherever they end up, getting them there has been a lot trickier in 2018.
At the Blaine County Recycle Center north of Hailey, Supervisor Lamar Waters is doing the best he can to navigate the new market, piece by piece, and ton by ton.
He has buyers in four states for the aluminum, tin, plastic and cardboard chucked locally, and he’s always on the lookout for more.
“As an overall, the U.S. is in a transition period, having to live without China in the recycling business,” Waters said. “China was such a big player. Without it, the whole country needs to change its methods, how recycling operates. I think it’s healthy.
“What’s our next step? We need to figure that out.”
The China sword
Recyclable materials, just like cotton or copper, are commodities.
They’re primary goods—destined to be turned into something else—and, within industry standards for each category, all essentially interchangeable. To a buyer, Blaine County’s crushed cans are just as good as Boise’s or Twin’s. Because of that, individual suppliers have little to no power in setting the price for their product—they simply take what the market will give them.
Unlike cotton or copper, which are traded via contracts on centralized exchanges, recycling markets tend to be very localized. They depend on people like Waters to go out, find buyers and make deals.
For a long time, the bulk of those homegrown sales, particularly paper and some plastics, ended up in China.
During the first half of 2017, China and Hong Kong took nearly 60 percent of the world’s recycled plastic, almost 4.15 billion tons of it, according to a report by the waste disposal company Republic Services delivered to the Blaine County commissioners on Dec. 4.
But in recent years, rumblings suggested that China was growing weary of both the purity of the product it was receiving and the environmental impact of processing it. Plastic plants tend to be high-emissions operations; paper mills, with their flatulent, sulfuric smell, make bad neighbors.
Earlier this year, China swung its “National Sword” policy into effect, outright banning the import of certain materials, and setting stringent contamination standards on others.
Nearly overnight, the world’s recycling markets changed. For recovered paper and plastic, China now only accepts bales that are 99.5 percent pure; for a 1,500-pound bale of recovered paper, it amounts to less than 7.5 pounds of other material, like food-stained boxes, waxy packaging or rogue pieces of plastic and metal.
Halfway through 2018, Chinese plastic imports had fallen by more than 91 percent, Republic said.
“The U.S. infrastructure today is not capable of delivering a bale with that percentage of product,” Pete Keller, Republic’s vice president of recycling and sustainability, told the commissioners. “To increase quality, you have to slow machines, add labor. It takes investment.”
For Waters, who works with two others at the recycling center, the new levels might as well be a ban. Other operations felt the same way. Bales of material piled up in warehouses all over the world, and prices, glutted by the newfound surplus, plummeted.
Mixed paper, which Keller said once made up 30 to 40 percent of all recycling, became trash. According to a 2016 article in the Idaho Mountain Express, Blaine County’s mixed paper was worth $20 a ton on the open market. In 2017, it peaked at around $100, according to Republic. By last spring, before the market evaporated completely, Waters was looking into paying a company $35 per ton to take it—basically, covering the cost of hauling it away.
It’s not just paper. In 2018, only 35 percent of recyclable materials—mostly metals and corrugated cardboard—offer programs a “reasonable return,” according to a report by the National League of Cities. That’s down from 64 percent the year prior.
China’s policy was a lead weight on an already sagging market. Recent changes in packaging of consumer products to favor lightweight materials had already added costs for recycling facilities, which sell product by the ton, Keller said. If a bottle weighs half as much, it takes twice as many to fill a bale, and that means manpower, electricity, machine hours and money.
There’s a tradeoff: Some of those new, flyweight materials are more environmentally friendly to produce and ship, but they’re less desirable as a commodity on the secondary market, according to Republic’s vice president of municipal services Richard Coupland.
“From a scientific perspective, they’re recyclable,” he said. “But taking it, and connecting it to a buyer who will take it on aggregate—that’s a challenge for us.
“Even if we had not seen China make a decision, we would have had to look at the viability [of programs]. What happened this year put an accelerator on the problem.”
‘Keep it moving’
On May 8, the day the Blaine County commissioners reluctantly suspended mixed-paper recycling, Waters had more than 250,000 pounds of it waiting on the recycling center floor, all stacked up with no place to go. The inflow kept coming—about 90,000 pounds per month, he said—but the spigot was clogged.
“If I could store it, I would,” Waters said. “I really don’t have the space to play the market like that. I just keep it moving, one load at a time. That’s the way I think about it—I have to move this product, because I’m running out of room.”
The county continues to subsidize the collection of mixed paper, though the material is put in a landfill. Its message to residents: Don’t change how you recycle, because the recycling industry will probably change first.
It’s already underway, according to Schoen. The board expects to hear an update next month from a Twin Falls company that is revamping its production line, with an eye toward accommodating the higher levels of contamination in most mixed-paper streams.
Hamilton Manufacturing—one of Blaine County’s former buyers—won’t be turning paper back into paper, like Chinese mills; it uses the paper for hydromulch and cellulose insulation. But the company does plan to use it—and, with time and investment, other domestic companies may, too.
“If there’s a silver lining to everything that happened with China, it’s that it’s forcing the U.S. to innovate,” said Hadley DeBree, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Resource Center in Ketchum. “Shipping overseas is easy. In the next few years, as we deal with our own waste, we’re going to have to change.
“Recycling is a business. It’s always going to change.”
In Part 2: A look at where Blaine County’s recyclables end up, and a practical guide to recycling.