China blamed for anticipated recycling fee increase

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Jennifer Riordan says she and her family learned the values of recycling early on.

“It’s amazing. Our trash can was half full after we started recycling. It’s definitely something we use and it’s important,” Riordan said Monday as her kids loaded up the bin outside their Walker home with some of the weekend’s recyclables.

But for Riordan and other families who take the time to recycle, the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished is beginning to seem appropriate.

China’s decision to stop accepting foreign recyclables, mainly assorted paper products, at the beginning of 2018 has created a glut of product and therefore driven down the prices recycling centers, like Kent County’s, can charge to sell their recyclables.

It’s happening even though Kent County has never sold to China.

“We never sold foreign. We always kept our materials domestic. But when you go from a lot of mills overseas to now domestic, there’s just not the capacity to keep up with it,” Kent County Resource Recovery and Recycling Manager Nic VanderVinne said.

At this time last year, one ton of mixed recyclable paper would have fetched about $85 on the market. Today, that same ton is worth next to nothing.

“No one could have saw this coming, too. It’s just a slap in the face,” VanderVinne said.

Kent County’s recycling program is meant to be self-funded service, not a money maker. But with contracts in place with waste haulers in nine West Michigan counties to accept their recyclables, the county has already lost about a million dollars.

Proposed increases in tipping fees — what haulers pay to dump their recyclables at the Kent County Recycling and Education Center — could nearly double under a proposed rate hike.

“It’s a $30 a ton increase. And even with that number, we’re still going to be putting money with it. We’re still going to be back stopping the operation,” VanderVinne said. “So the haulers will be paying the tip fees, your curbside hauler. And then they most likely will pass that cost on to the customer.”  

Just how much depends on whether a hauler decides to absorb part of the costs.

Also still to be seen: How much customers will be willing to pay before deciding to send their recyclables out with the regular garbage.

“I’m not really sure,” Jennifer Riordan replied when asked how much would be too much. “I’d just have to see how much it would go up by. Hopefully not much.”

Less clear is how the increase will impact the city of Grand Rapids, which offers free curbside recycling for residents. City spokesman Steve Guitar said the city was informed of the tipping fee increase a couple of weeks ago. Staff members are evaluating the city’s options and hasn’t yet presented the issue to the City Commission for discussion.

If the county commission goes along with those proposed hikes, the increases would go into effect at the beginning of 2019.

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