Wisconsin recycling processors are beginning to feel the pinch from China’s restrictions on scrap imports, and bales of paper are piling up.
At Green Circle Recycling in La Crosse, business development director Matthias Harter said he’s now having trouble moving some of the 400 tons of mixed paper his facility processes each month.
“Mills are just plum full. There’s more supply than there is demand,” Harter said. “Last year in August were were getting $75 a ton. Now people are paying to get rid of it. Which I’ve never seen.”
China, seeking to address decades-old environmental problems, in January banned the import of waste, including post-consumer plastics and mixed paper. The country also imposed a 0.5 percent contamination limit on the scrap material it will accept, a standard recyclers say is impossible to meet.
“(L)arge amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials,” China said in its notice to the World Trade Organization.
Though Wisconsin recyclers haven’t necessarily been exporting materials, when the world’s biggest importer stops taking a product it creates ripples in the global marketplace, said Bernie Lee, research analyst for commodities at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.
Prices have fallen as the domestic market has absorbed that extra material, and in some cases recyclers are having trouble finding buyers.
“Places like Oregon and California were affected most immediately,” said Jennifer Semrau, waste reduction supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “It’s kind of funneling its way now to the Midwest.”
The United States has historically been the world’s largest source of scrap paper. U.S. exports in 2016 accounted for more than a third of the world total, according to data compiled by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.
China was importing about half the global supply before the new restrictions kicked in.
“We’ve abrogated our responsibility, sending our stuff to China instead of developing our own market,” said Nick Nichols, sustainability coordinator for La Crosse County. “We’ve always taken the easy way when it comes to our waste streams. Garbage is cheap.”
While there is still strong demand for sorted varieties of fiber, such as cardboard, the market has tanked for mixed paper, the combination of newsprint, magazines, cereal boxes and junk mail that comes out of residential recycling bins.
So far Harter said he can still sell about 75 percent of his monthly supply, but there’s only so long he can stockpile the excess.
“Instead of a 1,600 pound bale of paper you have a 2600 pound bale of soggy, moldy paper,” he said.
Other processors are just happy to find anyone to take it.
“We’re basically giving it away right now,” said Stacie Sanborn, administrator for Vernon County Solid Waste and Recycling department. “They at least come pick it up. They don’t charge us for shipping.”
Recycling processors are also facing a new reality when it comes to purity standards.
“If you say it’s a bale of white paper, it has to be a bale of white paper,” said Wayne Gjerde, head of recycling market development for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “The days of a bale of white paper with 30 percent other junk in it, they’re gone.”
That’s going to require some public education, said Larry Hougom, vice president of operations for Hilltopper Refuse & Recycling Service, which collects recycling in about half of La Crosse County municipalities. Hougom said his workers have found everything from diapers to hand grenades come through his facility.
“When they don’t know what’s recyclable, they put it in the recycling bin,” he said. “We’d rather they put it in the trash bin.”
Companies like Green Cycle aren’t required by law to take mixed paper, but under their contract with the City of La Crosse agreed to accept all types of paper in residential recycling bins. City recycling coordinator Brandon Shea said if things get bad enough, Green Cycle could ask the Board of Public Works to modify the contract.
Nichols said the county would prefer that mixed paper stay out of the waste stream and thinks that in the long run recyclers will find new markets for those materials. And so long as recyclers can find an outlet for their mixed paper, giving it away is more economical than paying landfill or incinerator tipping fees.
While other parts of the country are considering putting paper in landfills, no local governments have asked the DNR for an exemption to a state law banning cardboard, newsprint, magazines and office paper are banned from Wisconsin landfills, and Semrau said it’s not clear how the agency would handle such a request.
“It would be uncharted territory,” she said. “The law isn’t based on profit margins.”
Because La Crosse County’s agreement to send solid waste to Xcel Energy’s French Island plant predates the 28-year-old law, the county would be allowed to divert paper to the incinerator, although there would be a cost involved.
“We would not like to see that,” Nichols said. “We’d rather see the materials recycled or reused.”