Low prices drive Wisconsin recyclers to send more to the landfill

By: - February 21, 2020 12:19 am

Outagamie, Brown and Winnebago Counties now face much stiffer competition when trying to sell their recyclables to the local paper mills. (Photo by JT Cestkowski)

Much of what Wisconsinites are careful to recycle may actually be ending up in landfills, thanks to the industry’s economy which has, for the last year, stagnated.

Market analysis in an October 2019 trade publication showed one type of plastic lost almost half its value between January and August.

Steel cans dropped from $191 per ton to $119 a year later. Multiple sources reported glass cannot even be ground into sand and given away. Mixed paper sells for NEGATIVE $2.

County recycling program officials said these numbers have not meaningfully changed in the intervening months. As a result, buyers have dried up. Recyclers are getting choosier about what they accept and ultimately send more to the trash heap.

And the effects hit home. Counties — which run many of Wisconsin’s recycling programs — may be forced to cut other services as their waste departments suffer.

land fill and recycling entrance sign
A focus on quality over quantity is pushing recycling operations to send more material to the landfill in hopes of keeping buyers interested in their product. (Photo by JT Cestkowski)

Lower prices offered for recycled paper could mean fewer sheriff’s deputies. More people needed to sort trash from aluminum potentially represents less asphalt to patch potholes.

“It’s the system,” said Meleesa Johnson, president of Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin (AROW). “All of this is connected.”

The problem is also contributing to the one thing it seems designed to prevent: growing landfills.

Riding the rollercoaster

The Wisconsin waste industry historically enjoyed a systemic advantage over other states.

The Badger State is home to more than its share of paper mills and foundries, especially in the Wausau and Fox Valley areas. For many years, these plants happily bought a significant portion of the state’s paper and steel recyclables.

Geography helped even more. Because many of the mills and foundries are concentrated in the center of the state, Wisconsin’s recycling programs had these buyers much to themselves.

That all changed about a year and a half ago when China stopped importing large amounts of recycled material. ​Suddenly states on the coast that used to be able to sell to the world’s largest market had to find domestic buyers.

Recyclers south of Beloit and west of the Mississippi looked to Wisconsin’s paper mills and foundries to offload their tons of paper and steel. The state’s market flooded.

Johnson is quick to point out the recycling economy — and China’s influence therein — has always made for choppy waters.

For instance, in the lead up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, China could not buy enough steel to supply the various projects it undertook to support the games. The metal’s sale price shot up to $400 per ton and then crashed down to just a tenth that value as the building boom tapered.

Johnson believes the recent coronavirus outbreak is also likely to cause fluctuations in the local recycling market. This is due, in part, to China (the epicenter of the pandemic) playing such a large role in the market and the recycling economy’s tendency toward instability. Johnson said Wisconsin remains “fairly insulated” from China in the market and yet can still expect to feel the coronavirus’ effects.

The recycling economy rides a rollercoaster so drastic that because Johnson, a Wisconsin recycling expert, does not check sale prices on a daily basis, she did not feel comfortable commenting directly on the current state of the recycling climate.

Abandoning plastics

Recycling and Solid Waste Supervisor Analese Smith keeps her eyes affixed to the changing markets. Her employer, Waukesha County, co-owns a common material recovery facility — where recyclables are sorted and baled for shipment — with Milwaukee County.

She said market rates, which collapsed in the wake of China’s decision, are even lower than the prices expressed in trade publications. Those are for “beautiful and pristine” recyclables, she said.

In reality, many bales of paper are mixed with envelopes containing gummy glues and grease-stained pizza boxes. These often fetch even lower prices. Too many contaminants and a buyer could even turn back a shipment trucked halfway across the country.

Hours of operation: Nationwide, recyclers are struggling to sell their tons of material due to Chinese policy changes. (Photo by JT Cestkowski)

Alex Nett, Outagamie County’s recycling and solid waste coordinator framed the challenge facing her employer and their partners in Brown and Winnebago as one that required a change.

The three share a common material recovery facility as well as a common landfill.

“We’ve stopped focusing on some materials,” Nett said. Specifically, the three Fox Valley counties no longer try to recycle several families of plastics as well as specific items like juice and milk cartons. When those come in, Nett said, they are added to the landfill rather than repurposed.

Plastics sort into seven numbered groups based on their composition during recycling.

Brown, Outagamie and Winnebago abandoned recycling three through seven plastics and cartons about a year ago when prices slumped.

American waste programs encouraged people to recycle all plastics as a matter of convenience. In the past, Chinese buyers were willing to sort to get the coveted “good” plastics. The “bad” plastics likely always ended up in landfills far from their point of origin. Now the United States is stuck with many plastics that belong in the garbage, clogging recycling systems, and fewer buyers tolerate the trash as a necessary evil to get the “good” plastics, Johnson said.

The unwanteds make up only marginal additions to the Outagamie landfill, according to Nett, though she could not offer specific numbers.

Other parts of the state also abandoned recycling certain materials. Douglas, Burnett and Washburn counties stopped collecting “bad” plastics commonly used in grocery bags and kids’ toys, according to Jennifer Barton, an environmental specialist with Northwest Planning Commission. NPC is a cooperative which serves many of the counties closest to Lake Superior.

The decision to stop accepting the items came from the cooperative’s recycling contractor within the last year, Barton said.

Now, unless parents can find a private service, there is no place in rural northwest Wisconsin to get rid of many broken plastic toys or old grocery bags except the trash.

And the problems don’t end at excess trash in the recycling stream.

Both Barton and Nett pointed out the difficulty for their programs to turn a profit in the current market.

Northwest Wisconsin suffers in particular. Most of its waste needs to be trucked to the Twin Cities, adding to overhead.

Burnett and Washburn counties received rebates for their tons of recycled materials only once in the last 20 years, according to Barton. Douglas county joined the cooperative’s recycling efforts only half a decade ago, but it has not seen any financial return.

The Fox Valley counties enjoy the advantage of more nearby paper mills and other local and regional buyers, though Nett acknowledges that the number of customers for Outagamie’s recyclables has shrunk in the last year.

Fire and quality assurance

The problems facing Wisconsin recycling programs have forced them to turn to solutions that may not benefit the environment.

Johnson says AROW pivoted to focusing on gathering quality recyclables. Anything deemed too contaminated at the sorting facility is pulled from the recycling and added to the trash.

Grease is especially problematic. Even a small amount can ruin an otherwise pristine batch of paper destined for the mill.

empty, greasy pizza box
“Pizza carnage” by pinprick is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Pizza boxes are usually comprised of quality corrugated cardboard, exactly the material recycling programs are looking for. However, the grease-stained half makes the entire container unusable. Into a landfill it goes. Even the perfectly good half is rejected because the workers sorting the recycling do not have the time to glean every usable scrap.

Johnson suggests people do the sort in their own homes. Tear the box in two. Put the greasy half in the garbage and the other in the recycling. Every little bit helps.

Nett believes a focus on quality will help retain buyers as accidentally shipping materials that cannot be reused doesn’t instill confidence in the product. A customer who received greasy paper from one county may not buy from that program again.

Other solutions are not so simple and require policy change.

A state grant funding program for recycling was eliminated in 2011 and was partially restored in the 2015 budget process. Dan Bahr, government affairs associate for the Wisconsin Counties Association, identified restoring the rest of that money as one of the two recycling-related initiatives his lobbying organization is pushing for at the Capitol.

Johnson said state money is key to many recycling programs, especially in light of the poor market.

Bahr wants to help Wisconsin’s two incinerators. The plants burn garbage to turn otherwise landfill-bound trash into electricity, recycling garbage into power.

La Crosse County and Xcel Energy partnered on such a generator. Solid Waste Department Director Jadd Stilwell said the more than  30-year-old project has kept 80% of the county’s garbage out of the landfill. That’s about 1.8 million tons of trash.

The incinerator has kept the county from having to build two landfills, Stilwell said.

Wisconsin taxes trash. Bahr wants the first 30% of garbage burned exempted from the state fees.

Aside from the pair of initiatives, Bahr said, the Wisconsin Counties Association is not actively pursuing many solutions to the flooded recycling market.

The recycling fallacy

Johnson is quick to point out that recycling is not a solution to garbage. For every ton of waste a recycling center manages, she estimates 20 to 50 tons exist upstream.

From mining and refining raw materials to producing and marketing an end product, each step uses up oil and other material which has to be disposed of somewhere.

Three deer run across the top of the Outagamie County landfill mound. (Photos by JT Cestkowski)

Even the recycling process itself is not without sin. Bales of paper, steel and aluminum need to be trucked to centers where they can be cleaned, refined and then repurposed. Even La Crosse’s incinerator generates carbon dioxide, thereby contributing to climate change.

Putting something in the blue bin emblazoned with the three arrows is not the end of the story. It begins a whole geopolitical game involving the Chinese government, Wisconsin paper mills and the local landfill.

And it all costs money. Taxpayers either pay for recycling or they pay for the dump. “The idea that recycling is a way to solve waste is a fallacy,” Johnson  says.

The real answer, she believes, is to generate less waste in the first place — whether it be recycled or thrown away. The first of the three R’s, after all, is “reduce.”


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JT Cestkowski
JT Cestkowski

Born and raised in Columbus, Wisconsin, JT developed his love for journalism delivering newspapers in the neighborhood when the usual paperboy would go on vacation. He writes for WKOW.com covering breaking news and taking on the occasional investigative project.