Someone tried to recycle a toy flying disk decorated with a University of Wisconsin logo.
After all, it’s plastic and Columbia County’s solid waste department, with its semi-automated sorting system, accepts plastics for recycling.
Well, yes and no.
The “pickers” who work on the recycling line will separate all seven different types of plastics. However, the flying disk sits alone on a shelf in the recycling facility in Columbia County’s town of Pacific, instead of in a bin with other plastics of the same type.
Solid Waste Director Greg Kaminski said there’s no demand for any plastics except No. 1 (clear plastics, like soda bottles) and No. 2 (white or colored plastic bottles, like milk jugs or shampoo bottles).
As for plastic types Nos. 3 through 7, Kaminski said, “Nobody wants it now.”
Foreman Roger Powell is reluctant to advise customers to throw their No. 3 through 7 plastics in the trash instead of the single-stream recycling bins.
“We need to recycle whatever we can,” he said, “even if there’s no market.”
Columbia County is far from alone in this situation.
China had been one of the biggest customers for recycled materials — not only plastics, but also paper and cardboard.
But there’s such a glut of recycled material available that China is in a position to demand that recycled materials they buy must be uncontaminated — cleaner, anyway, than most municipal recycling systems are capable of.
Industry-wide, recycled goods have contamination rates of between 1 and 5 percent; in Columbia County, Kaminski said, the materials have a contamination rate in the 3 to 4 percent range.
China buyers, however, are demanding materials with contamination of less than 0.5 percent.
The lack of customers for recycled materials has prompted many smaller communities to scale back the type of materials they accept for recycling, so they don’t have to store the materials until somebody’s ready to buy them.
“Rural communities have this challenge of very small volume, and the cost of collecting and transporting something of very low value in the market is going to exceed that value,” said Susan Robinson, a senior policy director for Waste Management, North America’s largest waste collection company.
Volume no problem
Volume isn’t the problem for Columbia County’s recycling operation.
In 2018, the facility processed 6,624 tons of recycled materials — paper, metal, aluminum cans, cardboard, glass and plastics. That’s 650 more tons than it processed in 2017.
Yet, the county’s recycling operation earned $788,656 from the sale of recycled goods in 2018. That’s short of the goal of $810,000, and it’s short of the $918,527 collected in 2017.
“We produced more tonnage, but got less money for it,” Kaminski said.
Cardboard (more than 3,500 tons in 2018) and mixed paper (more than 1,951 tons in 2018) constitute the largest share of the recycled materials processed in Columbia County, according to figures shared at the January meeting of the County Board’s solid waste committee.
An increase in e-commerce has boosted the amount of these materials the county's solid waste department collects, not only from its own haulers, but also from outside groups that pay the county $10 a ton to take recycled materials off their hands and save them the cost and trouble of storing it.
But the prices have plummeted, Kaminski said, and they don’t show any sign of rebounding. At $80 a ton for cardboard and $35 a ton for paper, the going rates are less than half what they were in 2017, he said.
Nor are there any signs, Kaminski said, that buyers other than the Chinese are stepping up to acquire the materials the Chinese don’t want.
Columbia County would earn even less from recycling without its semi-automated sorting system, which was acquired as part of the county’s $45.51 million building project, approved by the County Board in November 2014. The $950,000 system was installed in November 2015.
The solid waste committee is exploring the feasibility of expanding the system to allow it to handle more volume.
Kaminski said sorting systems are available to bring the materials closer to the purity standards demanded by Chinese buyers.
Powell said those systems also would be safer for the people who work as “pickers.” Despite the protective clothing they wear, he said, there’s no telling what residues — acid, petroleum, etc. — might remain on discarded materials workers must handle.
Kaminski said the committee is not ready to submit a proposal to acquire improvements in the recycling sorting system, because they don’t yet know how much they might cost or how the county might pay for them.
Tribune News Service contributed to this story.