A different type of trade dispute with China, not involving tariffs, but recycling, is creating some disruption in the U.S. economy.  China is now getting pickier over the recycled material it processes into new products.   Ironically, it’s an effort by China to go green, but at the expense of U.S. recyclers’ ongoing efforts to get even greener.   And it could end up costing you more in the long-haul.

An avalanche of Christmas gift boxes is creating mountains of cardboard at Millennium Recycling.

“We’ve got haulers coming in on a regular basis, dumping, and I’d say, I think we figured that it’s about 25-percent increase in the Christmas-time rush,”  Millennium Recycling President Shannon Dwire said.

But these onetime gift boxes are now part of the cardboard backlog created when China toughened its standards for accepting recyclables, even banning some of the imported materials because they contained too much un-recyclable trash.

“They’ve been a focal point to the world of being dirty and low wages and bad working conditions and they want to change that, Dwire said.

Millennium Recycling in Sioux Falls sorts most of its recyclables by machine, processing some 4-thousand tons each month.   The company falls well within sorting standards set down by the industry, but bad actors around the globe have been cutting corners and shipping contaminated material to China, a major manufacturer of renewable plastics and paper.

“China’s saying enough.  We don’t want your garbage and so that’s forcing places that were sending dirty material to clean it up,” Dwire said.

Millennium Recycling sends very little of its products to China.  Instead, most of it is put on trucks and trains and sent to mills across the United States.  But the glut created by the tightening Chinese market means those U.S. mills are paying Millennium less and less for its shipments.

“Supply and demand.  China has banned some items and they’re very picky about what’s coming in there and it’s created a lot of supply in the United States, an excess supply, where the mills aren’t able to receive as much, it’s forced prices down,” Dwire said.

To make up for those lower prices, recycling companies may have to raise fees paid by customers.

“it will be unless we keep it clean, so we’ve got to make sure the consumer is recycling what they’re supposed to be, they shouldn’t be putting garbage in there, they shouldn’t be putting items that don’t belong in the recycle bin,” Dwire said.

“Things that can be recycled may as well be recycled instead of pitching it,” Rosemary Mohrhauser said.

Rosemary Mohrhauser has been a diligent recycler for years and has encouraged the rest of her family to be just as conscientious.  She has a system down when it comes to sorting.

“Paper goods are in one box.  In the other box I have the tin cans that food comes in after I wash them out and i usually tear the labels off so they’re not on there.  The plastic goods, if they have the triangle on them, most all my plastic goods I rinse them out and they come down.  Some of my big milk jugs I try to squish a little bit to put them in my boxes,” Mohrhauser said.

Customers like Mohrhauser are on the front lines of keeping recycling affordable in the midst of international uncertainty.   Also, companies like Millennium invest in making the sorting process even more efficient.  It’s that kind of partnership between companies and their customers that will sustain an industry when a major player like China, bales out. 

China could be just the tip of the iceberg.  Dwire says countries including Malaysia and Vietnam are also becoming stricter about what recyclables they accept from overseas.  She says the upshot is more mills in the U.S. may be opening up in the future to pick up the slack.

To see a timeline of China’s ban on certain recyclables and how it’s impacted collection fees, click here