With the world’s largest buyer of recyclables cutting down on contaminated imports, David Campbell and other American recyclers like him are struggling to stay in business and ebb the overwhelming influx of materials to landfills.

Story by Zach Griffin | Photos by Sadie Sullivan

Above: Squashed piles of metal cans are stacked one on top of the other in Freeland, Washington at Island Recycling. These non contaminated metal bales are sold, and sometimes given, to buyers who reuse the material in other products.

House-sized stacks of squished multi-colored metal cans tower in the pouring October rain among Douglas firs and red cedars. Bales of newsprint, plastic bottles, and cardboard patiently wait in the mud, while hundreds of kilograms of garbage lie only meters beneath the surface. Time, money, and long hours of hard labor pour, along with the rain, into the creation of these enormous bales. When ready for market, they’ll be transported to distant buyers and given away for nothing. And some days, less than nothing.

David Campbell, the owner of Island Recycling on the southern edge of Whidbey Island, grew up with a desire to do something beneficial for the planet. In a fit of optimism, he quit his job as a mechanic to devote his energy to salvaging local waste for recycling. Campbell established a recycling business operating practically out of his own backyard. The Island Recycling facility now sits on top of a closed landfill tucked to the side of Route 525, on the forested fringe of Freeland, Washington. Campbell said the last four decades running the facility were an enriching learning experience.

But the world’s largest buyer of recycled materials, China, changed its rules in 2018 to reject any imported recycling materials tainted with more than half a percent of trash. American recycling businesses, previously relying on foreign markets, scrambled in panic as they continued to receive recycling with nowhere to send it.

One year prior to the implementation of China’s new “National Sword” policy, the country imported 5 million metric tons of recycling from around the globe. This is equivalent to the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza with room to spare, or sixteen Empire State Buildings. American recyclers relied on Chinese buyers to take their contaminated, trash-mixed recycling for decades because they lacked the infrastructure to process it in the U.S. With contaminants causing multiple environmental issues and health problems in China, the Chinese government decided to step in.

Plastics imports alone to Chinese markets dropped by 99 percent, according to the country’s General Administration of Customs. For coastal American recyclers dependent on these foreign markets, especially in the Pacific Northwest where contamination rates have reached up to 20 percent, this chaotically flipped the industry on its head. A large majority of recycling centers in the U.S. don’t have the technological capacity, money, time or labor to efficiently sort out contamination. Chinese markets with abundant cheap labor, combined with already available infrastructure, made up for this flaw. Reliance on Chinese markets was economically savvy, and domestic recycling problems were easily forgotten.

Campbell expressed worry about the whole situation, as he stared out into the light drizzle misting the multi-colored rows of tea kettles glued to the roofs of his facility buildings. Employees rushed about the muddy yard in the crisp air, helping residents unload junk out of their vehicles. The sound of a baler pulverizing aluminum cans whirred softly behind the walls of the makeshift breakroom.

“It’s a wash. We don’t get anything for it,” said Campbell. “We used to get paid for every bale we haul and now we give them away.”

The problem facing Campbell is the absence of a domestic market to sell collected plastic and mixed waste paper for a profit. Akin to most counties in Washington state, Island County contracts Campbell’s private firm for their recycling program. The county helps cover the profit losses, keeping Island Recycling afloat.

“If they decide to stop paying for it, we’re going to end up going out of business,” said Campbell.

Multiple communities are faced with the quandary of whether to continue supporting a program that isn’t economically viable, or to drop recycling altogether at an even steeper political cost.

“So, it’s a real sore spot because they’re paying us more now to recycle mixed paper and plastic than they would’ve to landfill it. It’s a moral and ethical dilemma too. You want to keep doing this but at the same time, economics have to be considered,” said Campbell.

China’s departure caused recycling prices to take a sharp nosedive. The scarce handful of recycling buyers in the U.S. now held all the aces knowing that these recycling businesses, with their constant supply of waste, could no longer rely on China to take their contaminated recycling. Recyclers were forced to pay domestic processing plants to rid themselves of stockpiled mixed paper, plastic and cardboard.

Campbell isn’t facing this challenge alone.

“Instead of getting $10 to $20 a ton for mixed paper, we’re now paying $70 a ton, which really increases our cost of operation,” said Richard Neyer, the operations supervisor at the Western Washington University Associated Students Recycling Center.

The competition to find a home for their most worthless recycled materials, such as plastics and mixed paper, is so cutthroat that recyclers keep their buyers top secret.

The probability of building a facility able to accept metropolitan-sized volumes of recycling, is based on the level of risk entrepreneurs are willing to take. No one is willing to spend vast amounts of money on a business venture that does not easily turn a profit.

“It’s a very capital-intensive industry. To set up a recycling facility is very expensive,” said Kevin Moore, CEO of Northwest Recycling in Bellingham, Washington. “Many [recyclers] have stopped taking certain types of materials, many have gone out of business.’’

Campbell, and others, desire to sell their businesses and get out of the industry altogether, but no one is willing to buy their facilities.

Above: Island Recycling allows Whidbey Island residents to drop off their recycling for a small price. The facility is now overcrowded with materials because China, the world’s biggest buyer of recyclables, is cutting down on the amount of contaminated materials they will buy.

“I know a lot of people who would like to sell their businesses. Y’know? They feel like they don’t have a way out,” said Campbell.

Some, including Campbell, are optimistic that the abundance of cheap recycled material will inspire someone to create a processing plant able to turn recyclables into new products.

“We don’t want to be throwing it away,” said Cambell. “We want to see it recycled.”

The Planet is Western Washington University’s award-winning quarterly environmental publication and the only undergraduate environmental magazine in the U.S.