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VALPARAISO — China’s efforts to reduce pollution could have a big impact on unincorporated Porter County.

Drop-off recycling sites could see surveillance cameras added and monitored or even manned as a result.

“Recycling is broken,” said Jim Metros, municipal manager for Republic Services in the Region. “The economics of it is failing.”

Some of the impact is from new packaging techniques.

Water bottles, for example, are now made of thinner plastic, so it takes 90 percent more water bottles to get the same ton of waste, he said. That means transportation costs for recycling plastic bottles are nine times higher.

But by far the biggest effect was from China’s 2017 decision to effectively ban plastics sent there for recycling.

Republic’s cost to process recyclables is about $60 per ton.

Keeping the material out of the landfill requires having somewhere to send it.

“China took about 40 percent to 50 percent of all the recycling out of the United States” prior to the National Sword policy’s adoption last year, Metros said.

China's standard for recyclables was dropped from 3-percent contamination to just 0.5 percent. That’s nearly impossible to achieve, he said.

Republic had a barge waiting to be unloaded when the new policy took effect in March, and it was sent back from China because it couldn’t meet the new standard.

“The market is just flooded with material,” Metros said.

Contamination is the enemy

“Contamination, folks, is the enemy,” Metros told the Porter County Recycling and Waste Reduction District’s board of directors last week.

“Basically, we’re going to have to educate people on the true costs of recycling,” Metros said. “Recycling is costing us four times more to get rid of than trash.”

Walt Breitinger, a member of the Porter County agency’s advisory board, said residents need to reuse, not just recycle.

Older Hoosiers will remember taking pop bottles in wagons to the store to claim the deposit. Some states still charge a deposit to encourage drink containers to be turned in to the store for reuse or disposal.

Americans became “lazy recyclers” over the past few decades, Metros said.

If food waste is in a can tossed into a recycling bin, it’s contaminated.

If a paper label is still affixed to a glass jar or bottle, it’s contaminated.

If glossy paper is mixed in with newspapers, it’s contaminated.

Different agencies have different rules for what can be recycled, too. A visitor to another area could unintentionally contaminate the recycling material by attempting to recycle an item not recycled there.

The Porter County agency has a contract for servicing its drop-off recycling centers that expires at the end of the year.

Currently, the county is paying about $135,000 a year, Haller said, but the cost is certain to increase, given the changed economics of recycling.

Add the electronics and household hazardous waste collection programs, and the cost for drop-off recycling increases to about $270,000 to $290,000 a year, about one-fourth of the agency’s budget.

Porter County’s options

“We need to give some serious thought to how our program moves forward,” Executive Director Therese Haller said last week.

In unincorporated areas, which the agency serves, trash collection is done by a private waste hauler at the homeowner’s expense.

Since 2005, the county has required waste haulers provide curbside recycling, but the agency has heard anecdotal evidence lately that some customers aren’t getting that service, Haller said.

The agency’s unmanned drop-off sites see high levels of contamination, she said.

Without some control measures in place, she said, the county won’t be able to control contamination.

One option would be to install and monitor surveillance cameras to discourage illegal dumping and possibly take action against violators.

“If we do nothing about surveillance, we know our collection costs are going to increase,” Haller said.

Another option is to have one or more manned sites.

If a new drop-off site is needed, building it will take time, said County Commissioner Jeff Good, R-Center, a member of the recycling agency board.

A temporary solution could be to have a drop-off site at the Porter County Expo Center, possibly using jail trustys to help man the center, Good said.

Residents could use color-coordinated containers to sort their recyclables the way they did before waste haulers encouraged them to dump everything into a large wheeled bin and let employees sort out the recyclables.

Staffing a site might also allow the agency to collect electronics, household hazardous waste and other items more frequently.

The board directed the agency, at Haller’s request, to study the issue more fully and look at the costs of providing the service, possibly building a new drop-off site, installing and monitoring surveillance cameras or providing manpower.

Haller said she would look at opportunity costs, too.

Elsewhere

Porter County isn’t alone in dealing with this issue.

Metros made a similar presentation last month before the St. John Town Council. His colleagues are making similar presentations across the nation.

Markets for recyclables need to be developed in the United States, Metros said, but that will take time.

“It was easier to just put it on a barge to China, collect your check, and God bless America,” Metros said.

Until new markets for recyclables develop here, Republic and other waste haulers are trying to determine how to continue their commitment to recycling under the new economics of the industry.

“This is an industrywide issue. This is an issue that is affecting Wall Street on down,” Metros said.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.