Inside a recycling plant: How to deal with a drastic shift in the garbage industry

As it becomes more difficult for recycling companies to ship recyclables to China, the cost of recycling is going up, including here in Utah. (Photo: KUTV)

(KUTV) — For decades, China was a dumping ground for America’s garbage and recyclables.

But, it's getting harder to get China to take our stuff. That can mean higher costs for everyone who recycles.

“We lost 60 to 70 percent of where we used to sell our material to, is now gone,” said Larry Gibbons, the vice president of sales and marketing for Rocky Mountain Recycling.

Rocky Mountain is a private, for-profit company that contracts with municipalities in at least four states to clean and sell recyclables. They have four Salt Lake City facilities that Gibbons says sort and pack about 70,000 pounds of recyclables per month.

The company used to send a lot of it to China, but government regulations have forced a change, Gibbons said.

"It’s a commodity, they know if they have to pay too much they’re not going to take it, so they’ve taken a different approach where we have to be better at our job," he said.

If RMR does send a bushel to China, it can only have one half of a percent of contaminants, or the company can be fined. The industry is also dealing with a new 25 percent tariff on aluminum. Thinner plastic means it now takes 90,000 bottles instead of 40,000 to make a one-ton bushel.

“If we can keep it out of the landfill, it prolongs us to having to do something different with our disposal options," Gibbons said.

And that can mean an added cost to everyone.

Right now, Gibbons says it costs about $1 per household per month to recycle. Some states are temporarily landfilling recyclables. Utah is not there yet, and Gibbons said he is optimistic it won’t have to stoop to those levels.

“We’ll see additional mills open up, we’ll see countries fill that void that China has pulled out from," he said.

Industry insiders say Utah is feeling a "noticeable" impact on the cost of recycling because of China.

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