China isn’t buying our recycling – you may be to blame

Published: Jun. 6, 2018 at 6:45 PM CDT
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We kick our recycling to the curb every week or two and most of it is shipped to China.

But, the country isn’t taking in as much as it used to, meaning that piece of Styrofoam or a dirty peanut butter jar mixed in the rest of your recyclables can have enduring consequences.

The price of recyclable goods, once high, has plummeted even though Shawnee County Public Works Director Tom Vlach says people are filling their blue bins to the brim.

“Since the curbside programs began, it really grew then and honestly it's just held steady for the most part since then,” Vlach said.

More recycling helps the environment and keeps landfills open longer, as long as those cans, newspapers and empty milk cartons can be turned into useful products.

Last summer, China, the main buyer of most U.S. recyclables, began demanding a cleaner product and cracked down on what materials it would accept.

“End users want a product that is basically free from any contamination,” Vlach said.

China is only accepting products with a contamination rate of half-a-percent. Vlach quotes Shawnee County’s most recent rate at 10 percent, the national average is 25 percent.

“That actually had been considered really good,” Vlach said.

Higher standards are making it harder on recycling companies. Paul Howe is the Community Relations Manager for Waste Management. He says the price of the commodity has gone down while contamination is up.

“It's going to be a real challenge,” said Howe. “Again, you think about a 2,000 pound bail and what a half a percentage - how small that is - and truly in a 2,000 pound bale that could be just a few pieces here or there.”

Vlach says a contract with Waste Management is keeping costs down for customers in Shawnee County but once it expires in November 2022 that could change.

“If you don't recycle properly that can cause a lot of issues on the back end,” Vlach said.

Whether residential, commercial or industrial, proper recycling begins with you.

“The solution to this is really at the point of generation," said Howe. "That's where this issue should be corrected and could be corrected,”

a full list of what to recycle and what to throw away.