Pipeline for plastic recycleables dries up; few local options remain

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Plastic to be recycled is bundled at the Valley Recycling warehouse in Kalispell. (Photo provided)

For years, Flathead Valley residents have hauled recyclables to different collection points, dropping plastics, tin, glass, cardboard, aluminum and mixed papers into different bins.

From there, the material would be picked up and transported to one of two local firms that compact the recyclables and ship them out of the valley. The vast majority of those shipments were taken to China where they have the industrial capacity to turn the materials into new goods.

In July, China announced to the World Trade Organization that it would stop accepting 24 different types of recyclable materials. The announcement upended the market and has destroyed the status quo up and down the pipeline, including the Flathead Valley.

Chinese officials cited high rates of low-quality and contaminated materials being exported from the United States and other countries, saying it was leading to unwelcome levels of environmental contamination in their country.

Local industry experts are calling it the most dramatic change to the business in decades, and some are left with warehouses full of recyclable plastics.

Some of those experts are hopeful it will lead to a behavior change amongst U.S. consumers, impressing the importance of recycling only the correct, clean materials, and that eventually the ban will be rescinded. There is no guarantee of when or if that might happen, however, and the undefined interim period will be full of difficult decisions about what to do with large amounts of plastic waste.

ON A local level, the rules impact plastic and tin collection. Pacific Steel and Recycling already stopped accepting plastics, and Valley Recycling, the other major outsourcer of recyclable materials in the area, will stop accepting them Friday, Jan. 12.

WasteNot Program Coordinator Allison Batch said it’s likely residents will see indications as early as next week that normal collection points are no longer taking plastics or tin as they used to.

Some local curbside recycling companies have already stopped taking plastics altogether.

Flathead County Public Works Director Dave Prunty said they are meeting next week with their vendor, Valley Recycling, to come up with a long-term solution. Until then, plastics will still be taken at county collection sites but will sit in a warehouse with no wholesaler willing to take them.

The operations manager at North Valley Refuse, Jake Persinger, said the company will continue to pick up recycling for Whitefish for the foreseeable future. He said they ship their plastics to a vendor in Spokane.

Scott Shreves is the site manager for Valley Recycling in Kalispell. He said he’s been in the industry for 30 years and never seen a change this dramatic.

“I’ve seen the roller coaster up and down for all different types of materials and seen the value of the material go up and down, but never to the degree I’ve seen in the last couple months,” he said.

The change will further imbalance a trade deficit that has already been widely decried by American politicians and lead to questions about what will fill ships headed back to China in their stead. Shipping companies often offered major discounts to scrap recycling vendors, because ships that transported goods from China to America were otherwise heading back across the Pacific empty.

Approximately a third of the scrap recycled in the United States is exported, and China is the largest client, according to the Institute of Scrap and Recycling Industries. About 1.42 million tons of scrap plastics were sent to the country, worth an estimated $495 million, according to a recent article in Scientific American.

Shreves’ company collects materials locally, runs it through a compactor to make it more transportable, and sells it to vendors that transport it, usually over the Pacific to Chinese ports. The announcement was made months ago, and his vendors reacted quickly.

“Our distributors or vendors that we sell it to can’t get rid of it so they stop accepting it,” Shreves said. “We’ve been trying to sell it for four months. We can’t find anyone that can take it.”

Those four months have left him with stacks of compacted mixed plastics taking up space on the floor of his warehouse, space that he would like to use for other materials that can still be sold and processed. He doesn’t want to send the material to a landfill, but the recent change has shined an unpleasant light on just how few options available to deal with the material locally or domestically.

Once Shreever’s company stops taking plastics on Friday, there likely won’t be options for area residents other than to begin putting the materials in local landfills.

“This could be the new norm, and that’s what we are a little concerned with,” Shreves said. “We have no bearing on where we are right now, we have no control.”

Shrevess’ hope, however, is that it isn’t the new norm and instead just a big warning shot and China is “just trying to make a point.”

The quality issue is a real one, Shreves said. In recent months and years China has been getting more stringent about the percentage of contaminated shipments they will accept, and Americans haven’t been responding.

“If we go back to this program we need to be diligent, the entire community, about recycling quality material. Right now we have people that are putting in plastics numbers three through seven and that’s the contamination portion that China doesn’t want,” Shreves said. “Even though our containers are labeled one and two only, they are still getting contaminants.”

Shreever said he has been in discussion with the WasteNot Project of the Flathead Valley, the city of Whitefish and will talk to anyone else willing to offer a hand in figuring out what to do with the plastics he’s already amassed and how they can keep people in the habit of recycling until a solution is found.

He said the learned behavior of local residents is a big factor in the recycling industry, and he is worried temporary halts could be destructive to years of hard work.

While the decision isn’t good for his bottom line, Shreves said he doesn’t expect to lose any employees because of the change. The value of plastics hadn’t been high for a while, and the number of loads of plastics he shipped was low compared to other materials.

THOUGH THE decision China issued played out in the national media back in July, other local recycling collectors say the impacts seem have caught most area residents by surprise. Teri Schneider is the owner of New World Recycling, a business that picked up recycling from local residents and businesses and transported it up the line for a fee.

“It’s going to be devastating,” Schneider said. “Something is going to happen in the valley.”

She said the new rules are not only bad from an environmental perspective, but will cost local businesses a lot of money. Transporting recycling to vendors that sell it for a profit is a lot cheaper than transporting garbage and paying for additional space in the landfill.

“One of our businesses, I would say we probably take six 32-gallon garbage cans of plastics a week,” Schneider said. “They are all going to end up in a garbage container, and they are going to have to pay for that.”

Peregrine Frissell can be reached at (406) 758-4438 or pfrissell@dailyinterlake.com.

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