We throw our paper and aluminum cans in a bin, a crew picks up the materials, and we assume we’ve made a difference. But experts say there’s still confusion on what can be recycled.
Brian Jongetjes’ family has been in the waste business since 1969. Today, their company, called Johns Disposal, handles both garbage and recycling for communities and businesses in an eight-county area.
Jongetjes says their workers routinely find stuff that can’t be recycled. “Dog leashes or rope or wire, it wraps around everything," he adds, “We hate that.”
Jongetjes observes, “People seem to worry so much. They say they don’t know what they can save. It’s bottles and cans, paper and cardboard — just focus on that.”
But waste reclamation operations face more challenges than the quality of the material they’re processing. He says while garbage collection is steady and predictable, recycling is not.
“You can work your tail off — like right now — and you lose money on it ... Ten years [ago], we made a lot of money on recycling for a year or two. It swings up and then it goes right back down,” Jongetjes says.
For years, China was a huge buyer of the stuff we in the U.S. throw into our recycling bins, accepting vast amounts for decades.
But in January 2018 that ended, in part, because China said it was receiving too much contaminated material that had to be landfilled.
Jongetjes says the change came as a blow. Right now, he says he’s getting decent prices from U.S. buyers for plastics, such as water bottles and milk jugs. "Those have been pretty valuable,” but he adds, “Prices are on the decline."
As for aluminum cans: “We don’t get a lot and for some reason the value of aluminum has also just tanked," he says.
Things get more complicated when it comes to cardboard and other paper items.
Jongetjes says there's a seemingly insatiable need for shipping boxes, as more and more people shop online.
That need along with local paper mills, he says, has helped save his family’s business. Mills in Indiana, Beloit, Wisc. and a new one opening in Ohio are making boxes. "And their big customer is Amazon and Uline, the amount of boxes they need now is tremendous,” Jongetjes says.
Yet, paper and cardboard values have hit an all-time low. He says losing the China market resulted in a huge disruption in the supply/demand chain.
Meleesa Johnson dismisses the doom and gloom buzz around recycling. She runs Marathon County’s Solid Waste Department and serves as president of Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin, or AROW.
“Let’s not use hyperbolic phrases like collapsing, in crisis ... Recycling is changing,” she says.
And Johnson says, some change is necessary — people need to learn more about what to recycle and how to do it.
She says AROW is putting a concerted effort into educating the public. “If we can talk about recycling right and recycling more, and keep that consistent message, we create less confusion. The other thing we do is to remind people that your municipal program might be a little different and always check that you’re doing the right thing."
Johnson sees a valuable lesson in the loss of China as a major customer: The value of creating markets close to home.
“What can we do in Wisconsin to keep these materials local or regional to support the recycling industry because recycling is only as good as having the markets and products you made out of them,” she explains.
The amount of waste Americans create is mind-boggling. The last time the Wisconsin DNR issued a report, in 2009, about materials sent to landfills, more than half of the materials were paper, organics (including food waste) and plastic. Johnson says some of that could have been repurposed.
“Burying it in my landfill means it will never be anything else but buried in my landfill,” she says.
Johnson says AROW members are researching every angle it can think of to divert material from landfills.
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