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Global recycling woes hit home

Paul's Industrial Garage employee Jeff Thompson moves recycling to be transferred to Lakeville, Minnesota. David Clarey / Rivertown Multimedia

A global downturn in the recycling market is dripping down to Pierce County residents, with higher rates likely on the way.

The price hike is from the community's contract with Paul's Industrial Garage — a local garbage and recycling business that collects recycling throughout the county — which is losing money recycling the area's goods. P.I.G. is facing what's become a common issue for recycling businesses in the last year; a depressed commodity market driven by new restrictive imported recycling policy changes in China.

"If it costs [P.I.G.] more, it costs us more," said Dick Hines, chair of Ellsworth's Solid Waste, Cable T.V., Public Safety Special Committee.

At an Oct. 1 Ellsworth Village Board meeting, members discussed a possible $4 monthly hike in recycling fees, up from the existing roughly $1 monthly fee. At the meeting, Ellsworth's board approved a new five-year contract extension with P.I.G.; however it did not make a decision on the recycling business' proposed monthly fee increase.

Both P.I.G. and Ellsworth officials hope that allowing P.I.G. to drop off at Pierce County's recycling center in Ellsworth would likely offset the fee increase. But differing recycling methods likely squash that possibility.

"I don't want to come off like we're just not accepting their materials" said Steve Melstrom, the county's solid waste and recycling administrator. "The only problem we have is that we are a two-stream facility, and the only types of [recyclables] we can take are two-streamed."

Global downturn, local struggles

Paul's Industrial Garage started picking up recycling in 1998 for Bay City, and has since contracted with rural Pierce County residents, Prescott and Ellsworth to pick up their recycling. Then, the business would easily earn money on its service.

A few years ago, P.I.G., made about $116 a ton on its recycling, owner Paul Larson said. Now, the business is losing roughly $2,300 a month on its Ellsworth recycling services, or losing $21 a ton.

The business picks up about 20 tons a month from Ellsworth recycling, out of its roughly 86 tons of recycling total.

"It costs money to get rid of it," Larson said. "I got to make money no matter what I do."

Most of the business's cost come from transporting the goods to a center in Lakeville, Minnesota, and the dwindling returns on selling the materials.

Larson and P.I.G.'s woes are similar for recyclers across the world. In the last year, China's moved to stop accepting numerous types of recyclables and institute tough quality standards.

The Asian country had previously accepted 30 to 40 percent of the world's recycling exports, but stopped in an effort to improve environmental conditions due to numerous businesses improperly handling recyclables, said Anne Germain, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the National Waste and Recycling Association.

China has banned mixed bales, or large amounts of differing recyclables mashed together, and placed stricter standards for cleaner, higher quality products, she said.

"No one was getting to that quality standard before [the new regulation,]" Germain said.

As a result, other countries like Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian countries began to accept more recyclables; however they soon became over filled with materials, she said. Soon after, commodity prices crashed.

And signals from China don't indicate anything to change, but instead the country has suggested it plans to further tighten its recycling imports.

"We think they'll stop taking anything by next year," Germain said. "Everyone is looking for other markets."

A financially unsuitable solution

P.I.G's. Larson zeroes in on what he describes as a simple solution for the local problem of price hikes; have the county accept the more popular single-stream recycling — recyclables like plastic, cardboard and glass mixed together — drop offs in their dual-stream facility.

"We're trying to get the county to take Ellsworth's recycling, and if they did then the fee wouldn't go up," he said.

A dual-stream facility typically only accepts separated materials, they can't be mixed, Melstrom said.

Germain said that single stream encourages participation. Dual stream recycling stands out for the higher quality product it produces and the less intensive care for prepping it. Materials are less likely to be contaminated with food or liquids, or mix together.

"The advantage of single stream has always been that it does increase participation," Germain said. "The easier you make it, the more people participate."

Pierce County tested accepting single-stream recycling in their facility in 2016, and commissioned a report of their practices that same year, Melstrom said. Both the report and test run came back with similar results; single-stream was not a financially sound move for the county's facility.

The report detailed that the existing dual-stream option is "working well," but warned that single-stream options will put "competitive pressure" on the county and that it should consider servicing single-stream products.

Switching the existing Pierce County facility to a single stream transfer facility would likely result in costs of $63 per ton of recycling, compared to $36 per ton to optimize the existing dual-stream facility and a hybrid option would be even more expensive, according to the 2016 study, done by Foth, a Green Bay-based consulting firm.

The report found that most of the difference would come from lower revenue in a single-stream transfer facility.

"The study bore out that we should stay where we're at," Melstrom said. "We've experimented with [single stream] ... and we were not able to effectively process it."

Larson and Ellsworth officials attempted to schedule to meet with the county's Solid Waste Management Committee to discuss allowing drop off, however county officials declined to put them on the agenda due to the sorting method difference, Melstrom said.

Communities have grappled with the two methods, and some have switched in recent years. Red Wing, Minnesota, agreed to operate with a single stream system next year, despite economic concerns and communities in Florida, Canada and California have switched back to dual-stream due in part to better economics.

Other solutions have come in the form of new paper and plastic facilities throughout the country in efforts to localize the market. Projects have sprouted up throughout the country, including a new $500 million paper mill in Green Bay.

"Hopefully, we got better times ahead," Melstrom said. "We're just in a downward turn here."

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