SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The recycling industry is facing challenges, and it’s hitting KELOLAND. Millennium Recycling in Sioux Falls is a local business dealing with crosswinds from trade issues, contaminated materials and an industry that’s difficult to educate to the public.
Millennium collects 100 million lbs. of materials, every year that people put in the bins. It’s not just Sioux Falls, but much of eastern KELOLAND.
In 2018, Sioux Falls area haulers reported a 23.4% recycling rate. That’s significantly lower than the national average of 34.7%.
Marissa Begley is in charge of marketing and communications at Millenium Recycling. She said the markets for things recycled like paper, plastic and cardboard are low.
“That’s just kind of what the recycling industry does, it goes up and down, but recently China put regulations with the amount of waste they were bringing into their country,” Begley said.
Lower markets and trade problems
China added bans and changed the standards of what recyclable materials could be imported into the country.
This sent shockwaves to the industry. According to the National Waste and Recycling Association, China consumed over 50 percent of the world’s recycled paper and plastic in 2016. They also were the largest consumer of recyclable materials generated by the U.S.
Materials recovery facilities like Millennium were not hit by the trade challenges quite as hard as the coasts. That’s because they sold about 90% of the sorted materials domestically. On the coasts, many facilities exported overseas.
So, when overseas markets shut down, the facilities on the coasts began selling domestically. This created too much supply and not enough demand, according to Begley.
Millennium is at an advantage in this area because of its long partnerships with regional buyers.
“We’re regional. We have strong partnerships, we have a really good system setup,” Begley said.
One market that is not very valuable, but still collected by Millennium is glass.
“It costs a lot more to recycle glass, but there is a use for it so we want to continue recycling it,” Begley said.
The glass collected by Millenium is being used to make new glass bottles and jars.
Another market that has completely disappeared is for plastic bags. Back in June, Millennium stopped accepting plastic bags.
“As far as the amount of plastic bags coming in (since June), it hasn’t slowed down yet,” Begley said.
She said they have received a lot of questions from people, but you can still see them being pulled out of the line.
It’s not just the markets drying up, but plastic bags also jam the equipment which slows down the process.
It happens to everyone. You’re standing in the kitchen and you’re looking at the bottle or box and wondering: “Is it recycling, or not?” What an increasing number of people are doing is wishing it can be recycled and dropping it in the bin.
“They just think if they throw it in, and it will get recycled because it’s going to the recycling facility,” Begley said. “Even though it’s not on (Millennium’s) accepted list, people assume we’ll figure out what to do with it. Which, some of it we actually do. It costs us a lot of money and takes a lot of work to pull it out and separate it.”
Instead, it’s jamming the equipment and ultimately going into the landfill.
“Anything people are “wish-cycling” into their bin is actually hurting the small business community in Sioux Falls,” Begley said. “A lot of people don’t realize that.”
Millennium looks at this with their residual rate. This the amount of materials taken to the landfill vs. what’s recycled. The national average is around 25 percent, but at Millennium it’s usually around 5 percent or less. Right now, the residual rate is sitting at 3.5 percent.
However, Millennium goes the extra step and takes some of the things they can’t recycle like wood and scrap metal and brings it to a place that can.
“Wish-cycling is probably higher than 3.5 percent. There are more people putting the wrong stuff in the bin, but out of that percentage of the wrong stuff, we’re able to get some of that out and divert it,” Begley said.
It’s a national trend. An Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson told KELOLAND News that “wish-cycling” contaminates the recycling stream.
The other challenge is educating the public.
Nationally there is a push to educate the public in a streamlined way. A group of organizations is coming together to develop unified posters.
“Our experiences have shown that education plays a vital role in decreasing contamination and increasing the quality of the recycling stream,” said Robin Wiener, president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. “The recycling industry is working together to help people better understand common items not accepted in curbside recycling bins.”
Millenium is working on a similar poster to match the national design.
The problem is: the idea of recycling is global, but what you can recycle is local.
What you can recycle in Sioux Falls is not necessarily the same as Rapid City, or Fargo, or Minneapolis or New York City.
“Think about Millennium, the companies that we’re selling our material to are mostly around here. We can only accept what the companies buying our material want and those buyers are making different products,” Begley said.
This creates a unique challenge to educate the public. For Millennium, this gets even more difficult because there are a number of private waste haulers that bring recycling to Millenium. They can each educate their customers in different ways.
Despite all this, Begley says recycling is here to stay. It’s just small changes by average citizens that could make all the difference.