Moses Lake — The Grant County landfill is no longer taking newspapers or mixed paper for recycling.
And it’s a sign of a bigger issue facing not only cities and counties in Eastern Washington, but across the entire country.
“It’s the little shiny inserts, they contaminate the waste stream” said Jason Collings, solid waste manager of the Grant County landfill near Ephrata. “The darn China ban is getting us all.”
In April, China banned the imports of dozens of kinds of recycled materials from across the world, putting recyclers in the United States, the U.K., and Australia in a bind as plastic, paper, cardboard and metal began piling up.
It’s prompted cities like Quincy to rethink their recycling programs as markets for American plastic, cardboard and metals — Collings said the U.S. shipped 30 percent of its recycled materials to China in 2017 — have dried up following Chinese concerns that there is too much garbage in U.S. recycled material.
The promise of recycling was the reuse of materials that would also pay for itself, keeping refuse out of landfills and lowering costs for everyone. The reality, however, is that recycling costs money, and the U.S. dependence on China as a market made American cities, counties and recyclers very vulnerable and placed municipal recycling programs in jeopardy.
“China wants to be self-sufficient, to recycle their own things,” Collings said.
“We are still doing recycling and yard waste, and we’re not changing any of the programs,” said Cindy Jensen, finance director for Moses Lake. “Cardboard is still strong, plastic one and two are still strong, but mixed paper is not as strong.”
Plastic one and two are used primarily for bottles and plastic jars.
Jensen said the city was currently studying how much recycling costs the city ad what kind of market there is for recycled materials.
According to Jensen, Moses Lake sends its recycling to Waste Management’s Spokane Materials and Recycling Technology (SMaRT) Center, which charged Moses Lake $85.35 per ton plus a $7.50 “contamination fee” to sort out the material not acceptable to China.
Ephrata City Administrator Wes Crago said that while the city continues to work on upgrades to its recycling center, Ephrata has lost the ability to recycle plastic.
“It’s all plastics, and we’re all in the same boat, storing it and hoping that a market will develop,” Crago said.
Ephrata, like Quincy, contracts with Consolidated Disposal Service, Inc.,(CDSI) of Moses Lake to handle both garbage and recycling. Speaking to the Quincy City Council two weeks ago, CDSI General Manager Mark Wash said the company was holding several months of Quincy’s recycling and had no place to ship it.
The problem will only be solved, however, by Americans handling their recycling better — such as cleaning and sorting it better — and for a new, domestic market for recycled materials.
Until then, it will be cheaper and simpler to bury recyclables in the county landfill for $28 per ton than it will be to recycle for $85-$100 per ton.
“This is a long-term problem,” Crago said. “In Grant County, we’re small enough we can get away with it. But the big picture is as long as we’re a market economy, we need market solutions.”
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.