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China's ban on U.S. scrap is raising the issue of 'dirty' recyclables in Wisconsin

The recycling industry is getting pickier about the material they’ll take — and that could affect what homeowners put in their bins.

China's decision this year to stop accepting most imported scrap has meant lower prices for plastic and paper, placing greater pressure on cities and waste companies nationally and in Wisconsin to keep unwanted trash out of recycling bins.

The impact has been more severe on the West Coast, where paper and plastic has been piling up at recycling centers.

In Midwest states like Wisconsin, the impact has meant lower prices for scrap and new calls by the recycling industry for cleaner plastic, paper and cardboard than bygone days.

That means consumers, who do the bulk of municipal recycling, have to be aware of the changing landscape.

Watch your mix. Don't toss plastic bags and soiled paper and cardboard in with your recycling. Plastic bags can be recycled but separately at drop-off sites like grocery stores.

Check the local rules. Make sure only plastics accepted by your community go in with your recycling. While some communities accept plastics coded 1 through 7, waste experts say not all those plastics are recycled because of market demand.

A safer bet is recycling Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5 — these are the plastics accepted by the City of Milwaukee. Waste Management, the largest waste recycling operator in Wisconsin, agrees that these plastics have the best chance of being recycled.

"It's not really recycled until someone makes it into a new product," said Lynn Morgan, manager of public affairs for Waste Management in Wisconsin, which operates the state's largest recycling processing plant in Germantown.

The emphasis on clean loads of recyclables took on added urgency after China placed an embargo on U.S recycling imports this year and now demands that 0.5% of material not be contaminated. That's a high bar that usually cannot be met.

Only high-quality paper grades can meet that standard — and it's not likely recycled material leaving a processing plant can whittle down unacceptable material to that point, Morgan said.

That means bales of plastic jugs, cardboard and other paper products will not likely find a home in the world's largest market. In recent years, China represented 50% of the world's recycled mixed paper and plastics market, according to industry figures.

The impact: Morgan cited industry data showing prices for mixed paper in the Midwest have dropped precipitously — from $70 a ton in July 2017 to zero today.

"You are lucky if you can give it away," Morgan said.

Last year, Milwaukee earned $1.6 million from its recycling facility in the Menomonee Valley that serves the city and more than 20 communities in Waukesha County, according to city budget figures.

Those earnings will drop sharply this year, said Bryan Ukena, resource recovery program manager for Milwaukee.

In November 2017, a mix of products the city was recycling paid $88.55 a ton. That fell by nearly one-third to $60 a ton in April, he said.

Ukena said the city is "doubling down" on efforts to pull extraneous and dirty material at its plant and divert it to a landfill. Waste Management is doing the same, and both have mounted public relations campaigns to remind consumers what products should be placed in bins.

Experts say, not only would the world look a lot different but the recycling industry could add billions of dollars to the global economy.

Developments in China highlighted what experts said has been a longstanding problem of too much unacceptable material passed off as recyclable.

"I'll be honest, some people want to make China a scapegoat, but they are just a cog in the entire system," said Meleesa Johnson, president of Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin and also solid waste manager in Marathon County.

Johnson said the advent of single-stream recycling — where paper, plastic and metal can be comingled in one container — has "given implicit permission in some people's eyes that almost anything can go in that bin."

This can be a problem for serious conservationists, as well.

"For the dedicated recycler, you are standing there and you are just not sure and the last thing you want to do is err and throw something in the trash," Morgan said. "We call that wish-cycling."

What can be recycled in bins? While there are differences between communities, solid waste authorities in southeast Wisconsin said in addition to waste paper, cardboard and plastic 1, 2, 4 and 5, these items are welcome in bins: Bulky No. 2 plastic like 5-gallon buckets, glass bottles and jars, phone books, steel cans and empty aerosol cans.

What can't be recycled in bins? Plastic bags, which can gum up sorting equipment; propane tanks; batteries (which can be taken to drop-off locations); electric cords; twine and rope; needles and medical waste; and diapers.

Try this, too. Rinse plastic containers of food and other material; leave lids on plastic containers and labels on all recyclables; place shredded paper in a bags and consider doing the same for paper that is smaller than a postcard.

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