National recycling woes not hitting county


Across the country, governments that have been encouraging recycling are finding themselves stuck with mounds of recycling and no place to take it.

Last year, China, which used to take the recycling, decided to stop accepting the materials.

The trickle-down effect has not yet affected Dubois County’s recycling, said Carla Striegel-Winner, director of the Dubois County Solid Waste Management District.

“Right now, we’re doing OK,” she said. “We’re stable.”

The way the county recycles and the process that many cities are using is what is making the difference.

Governments having the problem do what is called cart recycling, in which all recycling is put into the same cart. Companies in the recycling market take the mixed items to a facility to be sorted.

“Those sorting facilities have high contamination rates because all of that stuff was together,” Striegel-Winner said. “Imagine if the paper is mixed in with beer cans. It’s going to be pretty nasty paper by the time that sorting happens. It makes for a lower quality product. And it is more expensive to process that product.”

For the last 25 years or so, China was eagerly seeking that recycling from other countries for its manufacturing companies to use. But at the beginning of 2018, China enacted an anti-pollution program that closed its doors to loads of waste paper, metals or plastic unless they’re 99.5% pure. U.S. single-stream recycling processing plants, which take mixed recycling and churn out bales of paper or plastic, produce product that is, at best, 97% free of contaminants, such as foam cups and food waste.

The resulting glut of recyclables has caused prices to plummet from levels already depressed by other economic forces, including lower prices for oil, a key ingredient in plastics.

Dubois County, like many other rural areas, does multiple-stream recycling.

“That means that you have to sort it yourself. Each stream is a different type of product, a different item,” Striegel-Winner said, “our No. 1 and No. 2 plastics, our green and brown glass, steel cans.”

Therefore, there are companies that will take the recycling, because it is not contaminated.

But those that use cart recycling aren’t as lucky.

“We have an overwhelming amount of recycling here in the United States, and nothing to do with it,” Striegel-Winner said. “The United States does not have that full infrastructure of actually processing our own recycling, meaning making it into something new. We do in limited amounts.”

With recycling companies not having a place to sell their product, the value of recycling has started to decrease.

“When prices go down on the commodity of recycling, then that makes it harder to recycle that stuff,” Striegel-Winner said. “This has started on both coasts, and is getting closer and closer to the Midwest.”

That change is being noticed.

“Prices are dropping,” she said. “And when prices are dropping, a lot of government agencies can’t afford to keep recycling, or they don’t have the storage space for it, or the places they were taking it to don’t have the storage space for it. And that’s when it ends up being landfilled or incinerated.”

Dubois County is lucky enough to still have companies wanting to buy its recyclables. But, Striegel-Winner said, a big part of that is keeping the recyclables uncontaminated.

“It’s important that you recycle the right things and don’t do wish recycling,” she said, “where you wish it could be recycled or think it should be recycled, and you throw it in there anyway.”

That causes contamination, she said, which makes the end product less valuable.

“We may recycle because we get a warm fuzzy feeling and we want to help the environment. But it’s a commodity,” Striegel-Winner said. “Someone has to be able to use it to make something. They have to be able to buy it and process it into something new.”

Local recyclers can ask the attendant at the recycling center or call the process center at 812-482-7865 to be certain which items can be recycled locally. People can also use the 3R Wizard search tool to determine what can and cannot be recycled locally. The search tool is on the district’s page located on the Dubois County government’s website,

“It’s important now, more than ever, to make sure you know you are recycling the right things,” Striegel-Winner said, “and not to just throw something in because you think it might be recyclable.”

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