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Recycling business takes hit amid new rules from China

Residents are asked to be more careful about what gets thrown in recycling bins.

Take a walk with Steve Sargent through Rumpke’s recycling plant on Monument Avenue in Dayton and he readily points out what doesn’t belong there.

“Plastic bags, you’re seeing a water pipe, you’re seeing a garden hose,” said Sargent, Rumpke’s Director of Recycling.

For Rumpke, the stray material — called contamination in the business — is yet another threat to what is becoming a burgeoning and expensive problem: handling what people put in their recycling bins.

Until this year, China was a major destination for recyclables from the U.S. But China has tightened the standards on what it imports, making it tougher for American recyclers to find a market for their products.

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In response, Sargent said Rumpke and other recyclers “are trying to shoot for about a one to two percent contamination rate.” And to reach that, they need the public’s help.

With more recycling companies looking for domestic markets to sell their product, prices have fallen to a nine-year low—about $40 a ton. Sargent said it costs Rumpke at least twice that—$80 to $100 a ton—to process what people recycle.

The bottom line: Rumpke has lost millions this year. To try to make up some of the difference, the company raised tipping fees on cities that bring their recyclables to Rumpke, from $15 to $25 a ton. Sargent said those costs could get passed on to customers.

“The cost has gone up for recycling, residential recycling, really across the country,” he said.

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Sargent bent down to pick up a kitty litter box among a pile of items that should not be thrown in curbside bins. Sargent said many of these items can be recycled, but need to be taken elsewhere. “It’s not part of our program,” he said.

Rumpke employs sorters, whose job it is to look for contamination among recyclables on the conveyor belt. The sorters remove plastic bags, bedsheets, and anything else that can get caught in the machinery, and batteries that can cause a fire. Those items can cause the plant to shut down, which could drive recycling costs even higher.

“The old days of just dumping are over,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Judy Dodge, who sits on the Solid Waste Policy Committee, which works with local jurisdictions to make sure the landfill doesn’t reach capacity.

John Woodman, a Community Program Specialist with the Montgomery County Solid Waste District, said the materials residents should recycle include plastic bottles and jugs, metal and aluminum cans, paper boxes, glass bottles and jars, cardboard boxes and tubes, and newspapers.

Among items people should not recycle are plastic yogurt cups, butter tubs, plastic trays, styrofoam, and plastic bags. The latter should be recycled at the grocery store, he said.

RELATED: China’s restrictions on imports roiling global recycling markets

Batteries and light bulbs are forbidden too. Montgomery County has a special drop-off for those, as well as TV’s, electronics, even used anti-freeze and oil. These can be taken to the Recycling Drop-Off located at 1001 Encrete Lane in Moraine. It’s open Monday through Saturday. Also, household hazardous waste can be dropped off there on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Sargent urges people to break down cardboard boxes—such as those from Amazon—and recycle them. He said they can easily be re-used at least a half dozen times.

Another bright spot for the industry is glass recycling. Sargent said Rumpke’s Dayton glass plant brings in about five thousand tons of glass a month.

There is a big demand for glass in Ohio, Sergent said. About two-thirds of the glass handled by the Dayton plant goes to the fiberglass industry to make insulation, he said, and about one-third goes to the bottle industry.

The current challenges in recycling have some cities and companies going so far as to suspend their programs, but Sargent said Rumpke’s commitment remains strong.

“We think there’s a two- to three-year window where this market’s going to slowly begin to turn around,” he said. “In the meantime, we’ve just got a lot to do. We’ve got to clean this material up and that’s where we need help from our customers.”

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