Future of recycling threatened

by Luke Ulatowski
For The Beacon

In the midst of a worldwide waste crisis, a long-standing Wisconsin law keeps Sheboygan County recycling despite the practice’s loss in profitability.

According to Sheboygan’s Advanced Disposal General Manager Michael Thun, the company is adjusting its pricing models to reflect the current cost of recycling. “We’re anticipating some significant increases from the processors,” Thun said. “You know, Outagamie County was at one time paying $5 for recycling, and now they’re paying $30 a ton to get rid of it. I can’t elaborate too much on it. We have a lot of contract negotiations going on, so I can’t talk about all that, but Outagamie’s public.”

In July 2017, the Chinese government notified the World Trade Organization that China would ban the import of 24 types of waste. This includes all plastic and much paper waste. The ban took effect at the end of 2017.

In years prior, 45% of the world’s plastic waste, comprising 106 million metric tons, was exported to China. Countries such as the United States and Japan found that shipping the waste off to China was much cheaper than processing it. Likewise, processing the plastic and using it for new goods was economically viable in China due to the country’s cheaper labor. However, China’s waste monopoly posed environmental and health issues for the nation.

“It’s with all of the commodities, not just the plastics,” Thun said. “They’ve banned paper, everything, because of the contamination rates.”

China’s sudden shift from accepting much of the world’s waste to none of it has globally impacted the trash and recycling industry. In the U.S., even rural communities are dealing with the effects. At the Town of Sherman’s April 3 board meeting, while discussing the option of adding more trash compactors to the town’s transfer station, Supervisor Robert Boehlke noted a conversation he had with Advanced Disposal in which he was told that there might come a time when recyclables and other trash are no longer separated.

In Wisconsin, the law is a major roadblock for breaking tradition. As per Wis. Stats. 287.70, otherwise known as the Wisconsin Waste Reduction and Recycling Law, plastic bottles, metal cans, glass containers, corrugated cardboard and many more items are banned from landfills and incinerators across the state. The initial law was passed in 1990, and since then, the list of banned items has only expanded.

“The law is the law right now,” Thun said, noting that if the law were lifted and “it financially made sense for everybody,” landfilling the materials would be considered. In states without strict recycling laws, this option is already practiced.

“You can research what they’re doing on the East and West Coast,” Thun said. “They’re scrapping recycling programs because they don’t have an outlet for it. It’s supply and demand. The raw material is cheaper than the process of the recycling, so that’s what companies do. Nobody wants the material, so now you have to pay to store it. That’s what everybody’s running into.”

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