Sorting it out: F-M recycling centers sheltered, mostly, from China's import ban
FARGO—A move that occurred thousands of miles away, across the Pacific Ocean, may affect what residents in the Fargo-Moorhead area pay for their curbside recycling service in the future.
Recycling facilities in some parts of the U.S. are dealing with stockpiles of products after China, the world's largest buyer of scrap plastic and paper, began restricting those imports last fall. In addition, China's new rules requiring lower levels of contamination in those products could amplify the backups.
Julie Ketchum, spokesperson for Waste Management in its Lakeville, Minn., office, said the developments are challenging for everyone in the industry.
"It's having a huge impact on the viability of recycling programs," she said.
Ketchum said she wouldn't describe Waste Management as experiencing commodity "backups," because the company has found other Asian markets for those products.
However, Vida Recycling Corp. in St. Paul reported sitting on 300 tons of mixed paper because domestic markets were flooded, according to industry website wastedive.com.
Locally, the impact is more subtle and unseen.
Mary Aldrich, sales manager at MinnKota Recycling, said their facility, like others nationwide, is affected by falling prices, which hit an all-time low following China's import restrictions. Aldrich said recycling fees paid by local customers help facilities get through these tough times.
"That's why citizens have to pay for recycling services. It's critical," she said.
MinnKota sheltered from 'roller coaster'
MinnKota operates recycling centers in Fargo; Moorhead, Minnesota, and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Its processing site takes in the mix of paper, cardboard, plastic and glass that people place in blue bins out on curbs in Fargo and Moorhead.
As an intermediate processor, MinnKota compresses the material, selling and shipping the resulting one-ton plus bales to a more specialized facility in Minneapolis, which sorts the materials for sale further down the line.
However, handling the cities' single-stream recyclables is a relatively small portion of what MinnKota does. The company has contracts with more than 3,500 commercial businesses in the F-M metro that pass along office paper, newsprint and cardboard for recycling, with those bales mostly going to paper or tissue mills in the U.S.
According to Aldrich, that large domestic market for MinnKota shelters them a bit from the developments in China.
"We haven't had to ride the roller coaster of the import-export market," she said.
Volatility could push rates higher
Fargo and Moorhead's 'all-in-one' or 'no-sort' recycling programs have only been in place since July 2017.
In that short time, Fargo recycling coordinator Jen Pickett said drivers have seen a huge increase in the tonnage they've collected; almost three times the volume. The city's participation rate has also jumped from around 65 percent to near 85 percent.
"It's a lot easier now. There's no more separating. You don't have four blue bins in your garage, you have just have one bin and everything goes into that," Pickett said.
Fargo charges $3 a month for that curbside recycling pickup; Moorhead's rate is $3.59 a month.
One of the consequences of single-stream recycling is possible contamination, which makes the end product much less valuable. Those problem items include plastic bags, plastic hangers, food waste, diapers, drywall and insulation.
Aldrich said keeping the recycling stream clean in big cities is a difficult job, due to the sheer volume, but is more manageable in Fargo-Moorhead. City trucks are equipped with cameras so drivers can see what's coming out of the blue bins. Residents who try to sneak in unacceptable items will get a friendly reminder from the city.
Abiding by the rules can keep costs down, but higher rates due to volatility in the recycling industry are a possibility.
"It always is," Aldrich said, adding, "there's a lot of factors that we do not control, and the market is one of them."