SHERIDAN — At the start of this year, China instituted restrictions on the types of recycled materials it would import, which has led to global uncertainty about how countries would handle recycling going forward. China processed about half the world’s exports of paper, metals and recycled plastics, totaling about 7.3 million tons in 2016, according to a New York Times report. In the United States, China’s restrictions are having the most significant effects on the recycling of plastics.
Locally, Sheridan is not in crisis, but it is feeling the effects of China’s decision.
“Sheridan is recycling, and we’re recycling plastics,” City utilities director Dan Roberts said. “What we’re having to do is adjust to the market.”
Plastics are graded with numbers between one and seven, based on the polymers they contain. Grades one and two are commonly used to make light-weight products, like soft-drink bottles or milk jugs, while higher grade plastics are generally thicker.
Roberts said there is still a market for plastics graded one and two, and the city is still selling those plastics to brokers. Plastics graded three through seven, however, do not have the same market and the city would have to pay brokers to take those plastics away.
Right now, Sheridan is not paying to have higher-grade plastics shipped off; it is keeping them baled and storing them at the recycling center in hopes that the market for them will improve. Roberts said he does not know the city’s capacity for storing these types of plastics.
“This is a fairly new thing and we’re just trying to react to it,” Roberts said. “The good news is, right now we can. And if the markets bounce back it will be a non-issue. But if it doesn’t, we’re going to find out what our limits of storage are.”
If the city decides it has to pay to have higher-grade plastics shipped off, Roberts said it would cost about $1,500 per truckload, which is about 22 tons of plastic.
Roberts stressed, however, that residents should not change their recycling habits.
“We’re asking the community to continue recycling as they are,” Roberts said. “We have a plan in place and we have an ability, because of the recent installation of our sorting line with curbside recycling that we can sort out commodities specifically…that gives us a lot of flexibility in how we recycle things, and that’s a positive.”
James Schmidt, owner of County Trash, which collects garbage and recycling for residents in the county outside of city limits, also said the plastics market has not yet required a change in recycling practices.
“At the moment, we’re continuing to be allowed to bring all of the plastics mixed together with no change in the program,” Schmidt said. “The $6 million question is, will that continue and for how long?”
Schmidt said County Trash pays the city to take the recycling the company collects. He estimated his company pays the city to take between 75 and 100 tons of recycling a year, but he did not have an estimate on how much of that was plastics.
“Ultimately, whatever the city decides is unequivocally what we will have to do as a company in terms of how we service the rest of the county,” Schmidt said.
He added that, while he was not yet worried about the situation locally, the response would be critical.
“Plastic is one of those things that is incredibly hard to decompose,” Schmidt said. “Of all the recyclables in my world, it seems to me [plastic] is the most important one we have a solution for.”
The limitations placed on recycling has groups worldwide scrambling for solutions. How quickly they find them will determine how severe the impact on Sheridan will be.