YAKIMA – Mike Meils showed up to Central Washington Recycling on Second Avenue in Yakima on Tuesday with a car full of recyclable items, including a La Croix box, various newspapers and aluminum cans.
Meils, a 75-year-old Naches Heights resident, makes the trip into town to Central Washington Recycling “whenever (items) build up in my garage.”
But soon Meils will have to find a new home for his cans and other non-paper products. Central Washington Recycling will stop accepting aluminum, tin and plastic products Feb. 1.
It’s the latest change made by the business to keep up with major disruptions in the global recycling market.
Changes in China
China was for a time a top destination for a wide variety of materials to be recycled. But last year, the country upped its cleanliness standards and reduced the variety of items it accepted.
As a result, processing facilities such as Central Washington Recycling have spent more time and money to meet standards. And they are getting less money for items that don’t pass muster.
“None of the stuff is worth anything,” said Josh Williamson, an accountant for Michelsen Packing Co., the parent company of Central Washington Recycling.
Central Washington Recycling will still accept corrugated cardboard and paper products, which hold more value. Michelsen Packing reuses cardboard and paper in its fruit packaging products, such as apple trays and Jiffy Pads. A paper sheet is used to keep fruit from moving around in its box.
Central Washington Recycling is returning to its core model of recycling paper products. Over time the company got into procuring other products, but it was never a major part of Michelsen’s business.
China’s decision to stop purchasing what has been a major share of recycled items in the U.S. has meant that many recycling businesses are now breaking even or even losing money.
“It’s never been one of our core businesses,” Williamson said. “It’s to the point that it didn’t make economic sense to keep dragging along a losing operation.”
The move by Central Washington Recycling makes it more challenging for local consumers who want to recycle. And it’s an illustration of how the ideal of recycling never quite matched up the reality.
The industry has long tried to make recycling convenient for people. That meant putting everything in one bin rather than sorting it by paper, plastic and metal items, said Mikal Heintz, program coordinator of Yakima County Solid Waste, which operates the Terrace Heights Landfill.
The result is that many items became contaminated. And now, even the littlest bit contamination can cause a whole ton of recycled items to be rejected, Heintz said.
Those items end up filling landfills in the U.S. instead, she said.
“We got super excited about recycling and doing as much as possible instead of thinking of quality over quantity,” Heintz said.
‘Trying to hold strong’
For now, consumers can drop off aluminum, steel and certain types of plastics – namely water bottles and milk jugs – at the Terrace Heights Landfill. Many of those items once were processed by Central Washington Recycling. The county has been working with other recycling businesses to take recycled items.
“We’re just trying to hold strong until we have no place (that will) take it,” Heintz said.
Yakima Waste Systems is also continuing to accept aluminum, tin and certain plastics through its curbside recycling pickup program, said district manager Keith Kovalenko.
But even with revenue from more than 2,000 residential subscribers and a few hundred commercial customers, the company is barely breaking even.
Yakima Waste Systems, which is part of a larger waste company, said it plans to wait it out in hopes of an improved recycling market, Kovalenko said.
With China deciding to take less recycled plastic and other items from the U.S., there’s talk about reopening or ramping up domestic mills that can take those items instead, he said.
“It will happen in this country, I believe that,” he said. “(But) it’s going to take a couple of years. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
In the meantime, Heintz encourages local consumers to consider other options to reduce waste, such as reusing items or not buying items in material that can’t be recycled.
“Those things . sound so simple, but it does work,” she said.
Back at Central Washington Recycling, Meils, the Naches Heights resident, said he plans to look for other places that will take his aluminum and plastic items.
“It’s work. It takes energy to recycle,” he said. “I just do it because I like the philosophy of reducing our landfill.”
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