The trade war between the United States and China has been going on for more than a year. Among the biggest early impacts were soybeans grown by Midwestern farmers. One of the more recent troubles created by the trade battle is causing casualties out the back door of a lot of Washington residents. The Chinese have stopped accepting recyclables.
"As I understand it, China bought the vast majority of the recyclable material the U.S. produced," said Washington Mayor Joe Wellman. "They are no longer buying our recyclable goods."
During the last several years, the city of Washington has sold its recyclables to Martin County Recycling. That agency says the Chinese decision has left them nowhere to sell their products.
"The whole market system is in trouble," said Martin County Solid Waste Director Laura Albertson. "It began in 2013 with project Green Fence where the Chinese sent inspectors to look at the loads of recyclables they were receiving and it turned out that they were really just filled with trash."
Albertson says the Chinese issued a warning then to the big trash companies to clean up their exports and then began project Green Sword.
"They did not see any improvement in the materials that were being sent to them so they cut out both cardboard and plastics and said they would not take them," she said.
That has left the entire country's waste collection companies and agencies trying to sell their trash to a handful of domestic recycling mills and those mills have become both cheap and particular.
"In 2000, cardboard was selling for $180 a ton and right now it's $30," said Washington Street Commissioner Bryan Sergesketter. "I know everyone wants to be green and all that but right now it doesn't make sense from a financial standpoint."
"Everything is piling up in the domestic markets," added Albertson. "Most of the recyclers in Indiana have high quality materials, but the mills don't want any of the recycling bales to be contaminated with other trash."
That is where all of this hits the cardboard. In the past, Martin County Recycling would take paperboard like that used to hold sodas, cereal boxes and cake mixes in with their cardboard. They can't do that anymore.
"We have been told to eliminate the paper board," said Albertson. "We called the street department and we are trying to come up with a solution. We want people to recycle everything they can, but what we are finding is that if you want to recycle, you have to do it right."
Doing it right though eliminates one of the major items from the recycling stream and instead puts paperboard into the trash stream that has a future only as part of the landfill.
"Anymore of the paperboard we will not be able to accept for recycling," said Wellman. "That means we will be taking fewer bales of cardboard to the recycling center and more bales to the landfill. This is not good for the landfill. It isn't good for the city's budget and it's not good for the environment. As long as the market remains soft, we won't have anything else we can do with it."
"Even with those low prices and no place to sell it, we are still taking on cardboard and holding it," said Albertson. "A lot of communities have agreements with large corporations where they can get rid of their cardboard through the recycling program. If we suddenly stop taking all of it and the city stops taking it, then the businesses might decide it isn't worth it and then they will stop altogether, and when the market gets better for us then there will be no cardboard."
In the short term, that leaves the city of Washington and the Martin County Recycling Center seriously hamstrung in efforts to take on recyclables and move them to market. That means that other efforts the city is hoping to try like curbside recycling may have to wait for a better day.
"We are doing some research on curbside recycling," said Wellman. "But if we can't find anyone to take the recyclables and Martin County Recycling can't find a market for it, it is going to be difficult to get anyone to take on curbside recycling. That's a labor intensive process. In the past the market would cover those costs. With the market this soft it is tough to justify that expense."
But there may be a red lining that could turn this dark situation much brighter and that is for the big China trade deal to get done. The recyclables begin flowing out of the country again and then the pressure to raise trash prices to cover additional landfill costs might disappear.