Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Chinese Recycling Change Will Hurt City

City's annual $870,000 loss due to change by world's largest buyer of recycled paper.

By - Jun 27th, 2018 02:04 pm
City of Milwaukee & Waukesha County Materials Recovery Facility. Photo by Laura Thompson.

City of Milwaukee & Waukesha County Materials Recovery Facility. Photo by Laura Thompson.

Recycling in the United States just got more difficult.

No NBA player Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t running around town blocking your attempts to toss that can of soda into the recycling bin. China, the world’s largest importer of recycled materials, has effectively quit importing recycled paper and a host of other materials.

And while that unwanted phone book you recycle in Washington Heights doesn’t necessarily end up in China being turned into cardboard, it is bought and sold as part of a global commodities market.

China’s policy change will cost the City of Milwaukee an expected $870,000 in 2018 says Department of Public Works Sanitation Services Manager Rick Meyers. The city received revenue of $1.87 million in 2017 from the sale of recycled materials, but is projecting only $1 million in 2018 due to the depressed price of certain materials.

Thanks to Wisconsin’s industrial heritage, Milwaukeeans won’t see piles of recycled paper building up at city-owned dump sites. The paper mills in the Fox Valley continue to purchase large quantities of recycled paper from the city, Meyers told the Common Council’s Public Works Committee Wednesday morning, but at a reduced price.

Referring to China’s decision, which was aimed in part to curb pollution, Alderman Michael Murphy said: “it has an impact. If you have less revenue, you have less ability to do the things you would like to do.”

According to a report presented to the council, the city’s recycling program cost $10 million to operate in 2017, with a net expense of $4.7 million after material sale revenue, state grants, and avoided landfill disposal costs were factored in.

Since early 2015 the city and Waukesha County have jointly owned the Materials Recovery Facility in the Menomonee Valley. The facility is operated by private contractor Republic Services. Meyers credits the facility and its modern technology as a key reason the city isn’t in danger of having materials backing up and going unsold. “I feel confident that’s not going to be our situation, but absolutely I suspect you’ll starting hearing news stories about that,” Meyers told the committee.

Meyers told the committee that future improvements in material handling are planned that should increase the quality of the recycled products, but he doesn’t believe municipal systems can meet the high standards now imposed by China.

The report Meyers presented to the committee says that for the eighth consecutive year, Milwaukee residents increased recycling pounds per household. Last year, the city collected 25,340 tons of recycling. The city’s organics collection pilot collected 358,700 pounds of materials.

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