MISSOULA - The opportunities to recycle plastics are becoming more scarce and more expensive for companies to handle all across Western Montana.
The decline is linked by Montana Department of Environmental Quality experts to the global commodities market for recycled plastics that has experienced big changes in the past couple of years as China has tightened their quality requirements.
Dusti Johnson, a materials manager with Montana DEQ, says the poor quality of U.S. plastics exports damaged their viability in markets like China, "contamination killed it,” she said about the now-shuttered Chinese market commodity plastics.
Republic Services employees in Missoula say that they are constantly pulling items from recycling bins like garbage and dirty recyclables.
“That is a lot of what we see is people, ya know, just not paying attention to what bin they are throwing things in,” said Jennifer Bernosky, an account manager at Republic Services.
Glenda Bradshaw, the general manager of Republic Services for Montana, explained that the Chinese have so much plastic to choose from that they can reduce impurity levels of imports to almost unattainable levels.
“They are overwhelmed with the amount of plastic, so they can be very choosy, they can ask that it come to them in a very usable format, and really...the loads used to be so contaminated, they were finding hazardous waste, special waste, in addition to food waste,” Bradshaw said.
She says poor recycling practices helped create the glut of plastics in the United States that have lost their value, and have few markets to be sent too, especially if they are lower quality plastics.
“Here recently over the past year, China has reduced, restricted, limited both the types of the recyclables they will accept, and the markets have really become very difficult to find a buyer. So really, one of the things we say is our ability to pick up residential recycling, is always contingent on having an end market for it to go,” she said.
Materials management companies like Republic Services -- which works with municipalities like Missoula -- can offset the costs associated with plastics recycling by charging a fee for their curbside pick up program.
Johnson said plastics recycling is very labor intensive, and for landlocked states like Montana, the process involves shipping costs to their next location for processing. If the product isn’t worth anything at the end market, companies end up operating at a loss, she said.
Meanwhile, at Pacific Steel and Recycling in Missoula, they have posted signs at the drop off center warning people that due to the amount of contamination that is ending up in these bins, they could have to discontinue their free service.
“Ya know the cleaner it is, the more it is going to be worth. They better quality, one type of material, it's going to be easy to market. If it gets contaminated, and I don’t know if there is really a threshold, but if it gets too contaminated, we can’t even sell it, we can’t even find a market for it, so then it would end up going to a landfill, which is something we try to avoid here,” said Pacific Steel and Recycling branch manager Mason Mikkola.
Johnson told MTN News that the solution is to think about recyclables as potential products, instead of as trash.
“Just recycling in general, it is not a feel good thing, you can’t just say ya know I’m doing this for the sake of recycling. You have got to realize that we are recycling because these materials have a value. And they will no longer have a value if we recycle it wrong or we have a contamination factor,” Johnson said.
She added that the drop in the value of plastics has left some of Montana's more rural locations in a lurch.
The volunteer group that heads up recycling efforts in the Bitterroot Valley completely discontinued their plastics recycling service a couple years ago, and the Sanders and Flathead counties waste management services recently did as well, due to the tightening market.
While both Pacific Steel and Recycling and Republic Services plan to continue taking plastics in Missoula, company officials are imploring their customers to remove lids and labels and check to make sure they are throwing only the accepted materials into their appropriate bin, lest these services completely go away.