As China and other countries continue to refuse much of America’s recyclable material, solid waste management organizations face a critical question: pay more to recycle or send it to a landfill.
In the past, municipalities and solid waste management districts that collect recyclables like paper, cardboard, plastic and glass would ship the collected and sorted materials to countries like China to be re-manufactured and recycled into new goods.
But as part of a broad anti-pollution campaign, China announced last summer that it no longer wanted to import “foreign garbage,” and beginning Jan. 1 it banned imports of various types of plastic and paper, and tightened standards for materials it does accept.
Americans recycle roughly 66 million tons of material each year, according to the most recent figures from the Environmental Protection Agency, about one-third of which is exported.
While some recycling organizations send their materials to American manufacturers and refineries, the loss of a major purchaser means “the bottom has kind of fallen out,” of the global recyclable market said Allyson Mitchell, executive director of the Indiana Recycling Coalition.
“The cost of shipping these materials make its difficult to move them to where they need to be for processing, or finding a value to not get overwhelmed,” Mitchell said.
For many districts, it means a constant worry that the next contract extension will mean major changes for their business, said Jim Eichhorn, director of the Madison County Recycling Center.
“Some materials we just don’t receive rebates for those anymore, and the prices are down,” Eichhorn said. “If it came to a point where our current vendor wasn’t accepting material from us any longer, that would be a problem.”
Though they would still take things like paint, batteries and other hazardous waste – the essentials like paper and plastic goods might not be accepted.
“It could be an issue with recycling, but we are not there yet, thankfully,” he said.
‘A SHIFT IN THINKING’
But other waste management districts in the state are very much facing that problem.
“In Johnson County, recently their contract with their hauler came up for renewal and the hauler chose to double or triple the rate to have those materials hauled off because of the lack of value of those materials on their end for selling,” Mitchell said.
For the Johnson County Recycling District, the new contracts would have increased the cost of shipping recycling from $80 to $174 per ton on average. Last year, the recycling district collected about 1,423 tons of recyclable materials, according to their annual report. That number was up from 1,381 tons in 2016, the report said.
Instead, the recycling district made the decision to close all seven of their offsite drop off points, leaving residents with few choices on where to take their recyclables.
And for everyday environmentalists, the decision turned them off of the idea for recycling all together.
“I used to drive 10 miles to Sweetwater Conservation Office in Brown County because that was the only closest recycling dumpster for glass, plastic and paper,” said Johnson County resident Nicole Caudill. “It was not ideal… and it’s made it very hard around here to do so (recycle).”
And for others who recycle using curbside pickups, they can expect a sharp rise in the cost of those services.
In Indianapolis, Republic Services increased its rates from $48 to $99 per year, the maximum it was allowed to do under a contract with the city. Republic Services officials cited rising recycling costs and issues with contamination as the reason for the higher costs.
Companies and haulers used to be paid for the recyclables they collect and sort – now they are instead on the hook for paying to haul it away where it ends up in a landfill.
Increased costs and major inconveniences have caused some who consider it a duty to recycle to rethink their decision.
“Well, it does not really affect me that much since I don’t recycle anymore,” Caudill added.
And for a state that already lags behind the nation in the number of recycling households, turning would-be environmentalists off recycling is one of the biggest worries when it comes to pausing or increasing the cost for recycling.
“Because once you get people in the habit, that is half the battle,” Mitchell said. “Keeping them going is not as difficult … so to have a disruption and then you have to have them re-engaged with a habit, that is definitely a concern.”
But among the bleak prospects, Mitchell sees a few silver linings.
First, she said, communities and companies should consider the other two “R’s” of the recycling triangle: reduce and reuse.
“It has been a major wake-up call for industries and consumers to rethink their kind of fallback practice of recycling,” she said. “Because recycling, especially when it comes to plastic, is really just downcycling … Recycling is really just a layover to the landfill or the incinerator.”
Instead, she hopes customers will rethink the way they view goods that are double-wrapped in plastic or packed in multi-panel cardboard.
“This kind of reconsidering across the industry is really causing a shift in thinking,” she said. “How are they packaged, how recyclable is it, how biodegradable or even compostable is the packaging? Really looking at that whole picture, and all materials that go into those products, there is a ginormous opportunity to rethinking all of that”
And while many recycling centers face troubles shipping goods oversees, Mitchell sees Indiana’s position as the “Crossroads of America” as the starting point toward leading the charge in building local manufacturers to use and reuse recyclables.
“It’s important that people in Indiana understand that Indiana is really unique and has a really wonderful position to helping to weather the China ban for the entire country,” she said. “We have the infrastructure to process the four main commodities in Indiana … Indiana really is poised to be an importer of our own, and processing and remanufacturing not just what Hoosiers consume but for other states around us.”