You suck at recycling

(First published in the April 18, 2019 issue of City Pages)

The global recycling market collapsed largely because our recyclables were too dirty

Screen Shot 2019-04-17 at 6.49.51 PM copy.png

Right now, most of the United States has more recycled material such as paper, steel, glass and plastic than there are markets for those products. Yet local proponents of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra are trying to keep it alive.

OK, maybe it’s an exaggeration to say that we Americans suck at recycling. But it’s certainly true that the recycling situation in America has started to suck.

Markets within the U.S. for recyclables have not developed to the point where there is an in-country demand for all those mountains of material. Until 2017, businesses in China were eager to receive it, though. Shipping containers in West Coast ports that brought products from China to the U.S. were going back empty anyway, so they could be filled cheaply with bales of recyclable paper, plastic and metal for the trip home.

But a lot of that material wasn’t very good. In fact, it was too dirty to efficiently process into something reusable.

Chinese companies warned us, says Marathon County Solid Waste Manager Meleesa Johnson. But the American recycling establishment didn’t take the Chinese seriously when they said in 2016 they would accept less material if it didn’t come to them cleaner.

American recyclers continued in 2017 to send the premium, cleaner materials to American buyers. The Chinese factories got the rest. “We kind of didn’t listen,” Johnson says.

In January 2018, China’s “green fence” caution that it wanted a better grade of material morphed into a “green sword.” The policy now is so strict on allowable levels of contamination that it’s the equivalent of a ban. The U.S. recycling centers, known as material recovery facilities or MRFs, could not meet the new requirement of less than 0.5% contamination.

In other words, what Americans were putting into their recycling bins was too fouled up with food waste and other contamination.

And then came the crash.

National Public Radio reports that 2018 exports of recyclables to China plummeted to 1% of 2016 volumes. Those other 99 out of 100 pounds had to go somewhere. Bales and bales of plastics, paper and glass that had crossed the Pacific piled up, causing some communities to either send it to a trash incinerator — not great news for clean air — or even take the dispiriting step of sending it to the landfill.

Markets currently are developing in places like Indonesia, but not super quickly. Around the U.S., communities are either getting pickier about what they want households to put out at the curb or, in some cases, dropping recycling altogether.

Some are taking the advice of Cory Tomczyk, operator of IROW in Mosinee, who advocates for ending the recycling of glass. He says it’s heavy, potentially dangerous to employees who handle it, and hard on equipment. But glass has the upside of being non-toxic when sent to a landfill.

“It was sand to begin with and it will remain sand for a millennium,” Tomczyk said in an opinion piece published before China stopped buying.

Wisconsin is a bit luckier than others, says Johnson, who also is the president of the Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin.

Paper makes up a lot of the bulk in the recycling stream and she says Wisconsin has fewer problems finding markets for its cardboard and office paper because of its paper mills. From this region, much of our recycled paper material goes right up the highway to Tomahawk, for example.

What about plastics, glass and other recyclables?

Johnson says she is not aware of any instances of a Wisconsin MRF having to landfill any material that was supposed to be recycled.

That’s largely because state administrative rules require MRFs to make every practical effort, including stockpiling, to send recyclables to a buyer or end user. “No one wants to send this stuff to landfills, even when markets are bad,” Johnson says.

Most of the recyclables from the Wausau area wind up being processed at a material recovery facility (MRF) in either Outagamie County near Appleton, in Eagle River, or in Plover. And administrators at these area centers say they are not experiencing what some national news had termed a crisis in recycling.

In some states, MRFs have had to send their baled product to incinerators or landfills. Amanda Haffele, at the Plover MRF run by the Portage County Solid Waste Department, says she or other MRF operators would need a variance from the state DNR to take a step like that. “I am not aware of any MRF in Wisconsin that has had to apply to the DNR for a variance to send materials to landfills.”

“In general, we are not in a crisis mode here in Wisconsin,” she says. “It is true that we are not getting the same prices, but we’re still selling the material.”

MRFs in other parts of the country are straining the domestic market trying to sell what had been going to China, but the Portage County operation is OK financially. She says, “We just have to tighten our belts a little bit.”

At the Outagamie County facility, Alex Nett, the recycling and solid waste program coordinator there, says, “We are indeed weathering the storm. The reason is that most of our markets are local.” Even before the market in China shut down, the Appleton operation hardly ever sold anything to buyers there.

Nett says the DNR’s ban doesn’t leave Wisconsin companies with much choice: They must find markets. Though there has been some drop in prices, “In reality, here in Wisconsin, not much has changed. We have been able to find reputable buyers.”

That said, our recycling “quality” is concerning enough that a new effort was launched last year called “Recycle Right Wisconsin” campaign, website and social media effort was started last year in an effort to spread the word on good recycling practices. Because when a million of us suck at recycling, the problems add up.

A lot of materials that come through recyclers should really go in the trash (and will end up there, anyway). Johnson says MRFs try to work with haulers and communities to stay below 10% “residuals” that have to go to the landfill.

Johnson describes some of the mistakes households make as “aspirational recycling” or “wishcycling.”

An example would be a child’s car safety seat, an assembly of metal and several types of plastic that somebody would have to disassemble before the materials could be recycled. Such products just need to go in the trash.

So do greasy, dirty cardboard and paper, and plastic food containers still containing a lot of food waste.

Johnson can look at where people live and predict how close they’ll come to proper sorting. People in single-family homes and small apartment buildings do “moderately well,” she says, but in larger rental complexes, the residents are less tied to their community and less likely to know the rules. Landlords should provide a recycling guide with their lease, she advises.

She is kind when asked if we suck at recycling, saying, “We could always do better. The real focus is to recycle right, not just toss stuff in the recycling bin because we hope it will be recycled.”

Knowing the sorting rules can be tough because there are so many products and the rules can change. And that’s largely because the complex machines/process that handle recyclables can change.

For example, a few years ago Wausau area residents were told to discard the caps from plastic bottles because the loose caps got jammed in the processing machines. Now the proper procedure is to put the cap back on the empty bottle and put it all in the recycling. The cap is a different material than the bottle, but that’s OK now. It will be separated when it’s shredded and put in a tank of water where the cap bits will sink and the rest float. (But it’s still never OK to put loose bottle caps in the recycling bin.)

Johnson says the room in your home the product comes from is a clue. If it comes from the kitchen, laundry or bathroom, it’s usually OK to recycle. From the kid’s bedroom, “probably not, as it’s a plastic toy.”

Residents can call the solid waste site at 877-270-3989 for guidance. Their website has an illustrated guide and a question left at night in the “contact” area was answered the next morning.

Weston tries curbside audits It’s tough to reach into households to get better recycling compliance, but communities like Weston are trying through annual audits. They send out a community-wide notice that, during a certain week, they’re going to randomly select 125 households. Then, at a rate of 25 households per day, a team goes out and literally goes through both the trash and recycling bin at that address.

Valerie Parker, the village planning technician who has coordinated the task for the past years, says with the advance notice, they have few complaints about what might come off as Big Brother enforcement.

One fellow appeared to be protesting the practice, though. He filled his bin to the brim with sand. That brought two results. One was a letter from the village notifying him of the violation. The other was an immediate call to the hauler with instructions to not pick up that bin. He was left to dig the sand out himself.

In 2014, Weston began single-stream recycling, meaning it’s no longer necessary to separate paper products from plastic and metals. The hope was to make the process easier and get more volume.

But in 2015 the village’s hauler, Advanced Disposal, reported getting too much trash in the recycling. With the help of interns from both the village and Advanced Disposal, they started auditing the bin contents right at the curb, literally going through the contents at randomly selected addresses. If trash was found in the recycling or vice versa, it was recorded and the occupants got a letter.

Plastic bags constituted the biggest problem in the recycling. Residents might find it “neater” to put recyclables into plastic bags, but they’re not welcome at MRFs. The bags jammed up the sorting machines, and extra labor is required to try to manually remove the bags out of the processing stream when it arrives.

After the audits, Parker puts the results in the village’s printed newsletter with reminders of how to handle the things the audit flagged.

Along with the plastic bags, people put expanded foam in with their recycling. MRFs don’t have a market for that product, but families that want to keep the material out of the landfill can drop it off at Styrene Products, 5320 Fuller St., Weston, during office hours.

Perhaps as a commentary on our collective recycling abilities, the company had to remove its 24-hour drop-off bin because it was getting too much trash.

Nobody has been fined in Weston for recycling errors and Parker says the educational efforts, complete with big gold stars taped onto bins where the sorting was excellent, have made citizens more conscientious.

“I’m hopeful that our community is doing the right thing,” she says. When citizens call with a difficult recycling question, like what to do with shredded paper, her first recommendation will be to put it in a paper bag, staple or tape the bag shut, label it and put it in the recycling bin. If there’s lots of it or there’s some other difficulty, she suggests other options like giving it to a farmer for animal bedding.

A frequently found no-no is putting junk mail in the trash, thinking there’s less chance that way of personal information getting into the wrong hands. Parker says not to worry about how it’s handled in recycling. “Those people are working at such a high rate of speed, they don’t have time to read your mail.”

Wausau, served by Harter’s Disposal, has not done an audit, but might in the future, according to Finance Director MaryAnne Groat. She says, “I have had it on my to-do list, though. I think it would be a great idea.”

How not to suck at recycling

For more information go to

No bags, ever Plastic bags can wrap around rollers on equipment, and force entire processing lines to shut down. Any kind of plastic bag should go someplace like a grocer that accepts them. Or reuse them or throw in the trash if you must.

Dirty cardboard/paper goes in the trash Waste Management, the largest recycler in the country and the hauler for Mosinee and Rothschild, is pushing for better quality in what it picks up. Its website points out that one water-soaked cardboard box can cause the rejection of a whole load. Greasy pizza boxes cannot be recycled (though recycle the top half if it’s clean).

Do NOT recycle aseptic containers like juice boxes or broth boxes. They’re a mix of plastic and paper, requiring that they go in trash.

Do NOT recycle single use paper, foam or plastic cups/plates.

Rinse, empty, scrape any plastic recyclable container. Partially filled shampoo bottles make an especially gooey mess in the recycling process. So do food scraps—in fact food waste is one of the most common “contaminants” in the recycling process and can cause an entire batch to be scrapped. Do not “wishcycle” your dirty stuff. A quick rinse or scrape is good enough.

That container’s recycling arrow is not the final word. Beware the triangular “chasing arrows” logo on products when deciding which bin to toss it in. Marathon County’s Meleesa Johnson says, “The chasing arrows tell us one part of the story. It tells us the item has recyclability. However, the item may not be able to be recycled in your area. Always check with your local program.”

Trust that mingled recyclables do indeed get recycled. Some people are convinced it all goes into the trash—maybe because single stream recycling looks like trash. But material recovery facilities today have impressively sophisticated mechanical systems that quickly separate plastic, paper and metal. For example, blowers knock off lighter paper, magnets pick up metal, other rollers can separate plastics.

Less tonnage recycled isn’t necessary bad news

The usual way to measure recycling success is by tonnage. Johnson say there are cautions with that. A decline in tonnage for newspapers and magazines doesn’t mean people are not doing a good job of recycling them, more likely it means fewer print publications are out there. With plastic and aluminum containers, individual containers are lighter in weight, so there are more of them per ton.

With that said:

• Wisconsin material recovery facilities (MRFs) handled 4% less material in 2017 than in 2008, going from 749,716 tons to 718,154 tons, according to the state Department of Natural Resources

• Thanks to increased online ordering, the amount of old cardboard in the recycling stream is up. Paper other than cardboard is down.

• Plastic containers —more of them, but lighter individually — are stable in tonnage. Glass, aluminum and steel containers are largely stable.

• The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the percentage of the waste stream being recycled was 10% in 1980, 16% in 1990, 29% in 2000 and hit 34% in 2015.

• 15% of paper and paperboard was recycled in 1970 compared to 67% by 2015.

• It could be that manufacturers have gotten better about over-packaging products and that consumers are smarter about what they bring into their homes. The DNR says per-capita recycling was at 234 pounds in 2017, down nearly 11% from 259 pounds in 2008. Within that number, old cardboard is up 27%.