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As China roils recycling markets, prices plummet and plastics pile up in Missouri

Between November and February, Columbia, Missouri had been caching a portion of its plastic scrap because of a lack of interested buyers. Particularly, the city couldn’t find anyone to bid on its plastics in categories No. 3 through No. 7.

The city of Columbia produces up to 16,000 tons of recycling a year — all of which it had been shipping off to bigger cities like St. Louis or to out-of-state recyclers who can process the scrap back into a reusable form for consumer and industrial products.

That was before last summer, when China announced a broad ban on recycling goods coming into the country, citing stricter environmental standards. The ban took effect in the months before a rapid escalation of trade tensions between the U.S. and China, which has brought the threat of tariffs on hundreds of exports between the two countries.

Since the ban was announced, and since it took effect on Jan. 1, global prices on recyclables have dropped drastically, and even cities like Columbia, are impacted.

For some communities, that’s meant dumping collected recyclables into landfills because no one will buy them. For others, like Columbia, it’s meant hoarding recycling scrap outside a warehouse until the market picks back up.

To Joe Pickard, chief economist for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (IRSI), the ban on plastics could be an ominous sign for an already volatile recycling market. In the U.S. at least, he said, it’s been a major disincentive for cities and other municipalities to recycle.

“A lot of people don’t think about how what happens in China actually affects what you can put into your bin at home,” Pickard said.

Pickard said it’s not just plastic scrap that is losing value, but some metals and paper, too. In some areas, paper has dropped from $60 per pound to $10 since last year, he said, and in other areas, it has no value at all.

Nick Paul, who helps run Columbia’s recycling program, said he’s seeing the same trend in mid-Missouri. In 2015, Paul said, the city was getting bids as high as 5 cents per pound for No. 3 through No. 7 scrap plastic. Today, he said, they’re lucky to get a penny per pound for it —the lowest rate for which the city has ever sold the material.

“It’s getting harder and harder — all the recycling,” Paul said. “Cardboard has gone down quite a bit; mixed paper has gone down. The only thing that’s going up right now is tin.”

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