GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — At the Kent County Recycling and Education Center in Grand Rapids, materials move fast: plastics, cardboard and more are quickly sorted by machines and by workers on the line.

“Weekly tonnage has remained fairly consistent. That’s a good sign,” facility supervisor Kyle Shoemaker told 24 Hour News 8 Friday.

A good sign, especially considering what’s happened over the past year and a half.

In January 2018, China stopped accepting almost all recyclables from the U.S., saying the materials weren’t clean enough. For years, it had accepted low-grade recyclables.

While Kent County has never sent materials to China, the U.S. processors it uses suddenly became overwhelmed with supply. That lowered or altogether eliminated what processors will pay for it, which led facilities to charge haulers more. In January, Kent County nearly doubled its service fee for waste haulers.

Some haulers have passed or plan to pass that added cost on to customers.

“What’s happening with recyclables now that China has stopped accepting them? That’s the biggest question,” Shoemaker said of the industry.

In some cities, Shoemaker said, there have been major changes. Rising costs have led facilities to slash staff or shut down altogether. And in some cases, recyclables are even being sent to landfills.

But not in Kent County, where the facilities receive recycled materials from haulers in several counties. 

“Kent County has not landfilled any material since the turbulence has happened with China. We maintain our processes, our staffing,” Shoemaker said. “We want our community to trust that the right thing is happening with the products that they give us.”

Kent County has been able to weather the initial storm, so to speak, because it has maintained proper equipment and staffing levels. That ensures the recyclables are high quality and will be accept by U.S. processors.

Shoemaker also credits the community. He believes people are willing to pay a little more if necessary.

“The community demands recycling. I think that’s something that’s apparent,” Shoemaker said. “And if people are committed to coming up with solutions, Kent County will continue to offer the service.”

Shoemaker is also optimistic about the big picture. He hopes that in time, recycling in America can bounce back.

“Domestic vendors can increase their capabilities. We can build more fiber mills. We can put more plastic vendors online to take this growing product. That would help prices stabilize,” Shoemaker explained. “There’s some short-term heartburn but long-term solutions that could be U.S.-based.”