A major part of the region’s recycling capability passed quietly away last month. Locally, the time of departure was marked at about 10:49 a.m. Sept. 4, when the Idaho County Commission approved a motion to discontinue collection of plastic by Lewis Clark Recyclers.
The cause was a massive market failure, brought on in part by a trade war and policy changes that have seen China stop accepting plastic waste from all over the world.
There is no immediate cure, and if none is found, it will marginally increase the waste management burden local governments already face throughout North Central Idaho.
In Clearwater County, where plastic recycling was discontinued Oct. 10, recyclers reported having separated out enough to fill five rolloffs totaling more than six tons of plastic in 2018.
“For the most part, people want to help the environment,” Clearwater County waste manager Pam Jones told the Free Press, “but this is out of anybody’s hands.”
In Idaho County, plastic recycling totaled nearly 10 tons during the past year of collection.
“If they can find a reliable market, maybe on a limited basis we can start collecting in six months to a year,” local recycler Janie Fluharty told the Free Press. “Almost everybody is aware of the huge problems in the ocean, but even locally, the plastic fills up the landfill. It doesn’t break down. I’ve heard the comment ‘Well, it doesn’t affect us that much.’ But it does if we have to open new grounds or expand current dumps.”
Recycling of other materials continues, with office paper, newsprint and cardboard all making up the largest portions of the total the recyclers divert from entering landfills in favor of marketable use.
In May, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) announced a goal to recycle or recover all plastic packaging used in the United States by 2040.
But in the case of post-consumer plastics, the market, for the moment, is dead.
The loss was described as heartfelt by Lewis Clark Recycling Inc. (LCRI), which still contracts as the recycling service provider for Clearwater and Idaho counties as well as others in the region.
“It is with a heavy heart that LCRI must announce the discontinuation of collecting post-consumer plastics,” LCRI principal owner Mark Anderson said via news release. “Market forces…namely China’s implementation of a pair of initiatives with regard to importing post-consumer goods, have driven the price of these materials to zero.”
An LCRI fact sheet points to China’s implementation of “Green Fence” and “National Sword” policies under which it will no longer accept many products for recycling – of which post-consumer plastic is just one category.
A fact sheet provided by LCRI describes contamination in the product to be imported by China as a major barrier: “With the advent of the ‘Single Stream’ recycling method, previously reclaimable plastics are mixed with other products and, in many instances, outright waste. This contamination can, and does, include food residue, paper, wood and other fibers, non-recyclable plastic (Styrofoam, PVC), human and animal waste, bio-hazard materials, chemical waste, and so forth.”
Chinese policies aren’t the only barrier to the plastic industry of America’s own.
U.S. import tariffs engaged in August hit $16.4 billion in the business of plastics and related chemicals, according to the ACC, which has lobbied Washington D.C. for more than 1,500 products to be delisted, noting Chinese retaliation against more than 1,000 U.S. export products hit another $10.8 billion in trade.
“The tariffs – in effect a tax – put U.S. chemical manufacturers at a disadvantage, but we aren’t the only ones that will suffer the impact,” ACC director of international trade Ed Brzytwa noted in a press release Sept. 24. “Since chemistry touches 96 percent of all manufactured goods, taxes on our industry will ultimately raise the prices of popular consumer products – everything from cars and trucks to electronics.”