Gloria Schmidt visits Pacific Steel and Recycling in Kalispell every couple of weeks to drop off her recyclables. On Monday morning she deposited a few boxes and newspapers into the appropriate bins, just like usual. Although it’s not a lot, it’s important to her to do what she can to help the environment.
But a possible change to her routine is around the corner.
Above the receptacles is a sign alerting customers that as of Aug. 1, they’ll have to pay to drop off fibrous recyclables such as cardboard, newspaper and other paper. It’s the latest in a long line of trickle-down effects resulting from China’s decision to restrict imports of select United States recyclables in 2017, known as the National Sword policy. Previously, an estimated 40 percent of U.S. recyclables were sent to China. However, the country restricted imports due to receiving what it considered to be a high percentage of contaminated materials.
“China was always the place where people just unloaded their material and they took all sorts of grade from good grade to poor grade,” Pacific Steel Office Manager Rich Evers said. “The markets have deteriorated so there’s just not value in the [cardboard] and we have to be able to cover our operational costs. There’s so much inventory out there.”
Some cities across the U.S. have halted recycling programs entirely, whereas other outlets like Pacific Steel have either increased prices or begun charging. And cardboard isn’t the only material impacted by China’s policy. In February 2018, Flathead County stopped taking plastic, and glass recycling ground to a halt in December 2018 when New World Recycling shuttered its doors in November that same year. Since then, plastic recycling has made a slight rebound — Valley Recycling began accepting type 1 and 2 plastics through its pilot program and Whitefish residents can still recycle those same materials at the City Central Recycling site.
But for now, the future for cardboard remains uncertain.
Montana Department of Environmental Quality Materials Manager Dianna Robinson said that statewide, most recyclers are beginning to charge for cardboard. For example, Four Corners Recycling, based in Bozeman, is charging $50 per ton or .25 cents per pound for smaller loads. Its website states that cardboard is at a 45-year low, but the company will “adjust accordingly” when the market rebounds.
“It’s such a high value material — none of the recyclers want to see it thrown away. A lot of them are subsidizing those costs in addition to what they’re charging the public,” Robinson said. “At a certain point they need to keep the lights on. That, unfortunately, is what’s going on right now.”
Evers said the cardboard and paper market was “pretty consistent” prior to China’s ban of imported recyclables, and although he declined to specify a quantity, he said Pacific Steel received “a lot” of cardboard. Going forward, individuals will be charged a flat rate to drop off fibrous materials, while prices for commercial qualities will be determined by weight.
“Not a lot of people are too keen on the idea of having to pay to have their stuff recycled,” Evers acknowledged. “From the commercial aspect, I don’t think it’s going to change much. Companies want to do the right thing and practice good environmental practices. When it gets down to it, it’s really not all that much.”
Super 1 Foods Assistant Store Director Brandon Hice said the Super 1 locations in the valley will continue to recycle, but will divert their cardboard to a Missoula-based company instead.
“We would have been impacted, but we decided to go through a different vendor,” Hice said. “Each store is producing about 12 to 15 bales in a week at $30 a bale, that cost adds up.”
However, a couple years prior, Evers said, things were the other way around.
“Back before prices plummeted here about a year ago, it was the other side of the coin — we were paying them for their cardboard. It’s just kind of the way it’s going right now,” he said. “We definitely don’t believe it’s a permanent thing, but how short term is it going to be is unknown.”
Other recyclers in the valley who accept cardboard have yet to follow in Pacific Steel’s footsteps, but acknowledge the downturn in the fiber recycling market.
Valley Recycling operator Mike Smith said his company doesn’t anticipate charging for cardboard, but said the market is “in a slump.” One of his buyers refuses to take the cardboard due to the high cost of freight, he said, while another is paying him $25 per ton.
“It’s a balancing act of where to send it to right now,” Smith said.
At the heart of the issue is contamination, which Robinson said first became a problem about 20 years ago. Back then, single-stream recycling was implemented, where users put all types of recyclable materials into a single bin. She said people began “aspirational recycling” — putting items in the recycling bin that they weren’t sure of, in hopes that they’d be recycled if possible or thrown out if they didn’t meet the standards.
But those “maybe” items, however well-intended, had an adverse affect.
County Landfill Operations Manager Jim Chilton said some of their loads were so contaminated they were rejected and eventually ended up in a landfill.
“A lot of our recyclables had too much contamination … You can put signage out and things like that but a lot of folks don’t pay attention to that,” Chilton said. “We used to have everything put in from plastic toys to plastic snow fence, everything like that — things that weren’t accepted.”
Robinson said she hopes prospective recyclers will focus on quantity instead of quality when it comes to recyclable materials.
“When in doubt, throw it out. It’s better to put it in the landfill than for it to contaminate a batch of recycling, especially in a state like Montana — you have to ship things so far,” Robinson said. “I have high hopes that this is going to change how we’re thinking about our recycling and making people consider, instead of recycling …focusing on producing less of that waste to begin with.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at (406) 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.