What goes in recycle bin? Cardboard — Yes; Mayonnaise — No

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Scott Reed, operations director for Waste Management, talks about what to recycle during a Copper Country Recycling Initiative forum Thursday.

HOUGHTON — To grow recycling in the area, knowing what to recycle is key, Scott Reed, operations director for Waste Management, said during a Copper Country Recycling Initiative (CCRI) forum Thursday.

Over the past two years, China, which had taken most of America’s recyclables, began demanding higher quality. It now accepts no more than 0.5% contamination with unrecyclable material.

The resulting glut has led to falling prices of materials such as mixed paper and plastics.

“The best way to grow this program and to sustain it is to make sure that what you’re putting into your recycling is actually recyclable,” Reed said.

Not everything meets that standard, such as blankets, tennis shoes and pizza boxes with half a pizza left.

“I don’t know if they were leaving it for my driver or not,” Reed said.

Even in cases where they’re usable, food containers should be rinsed out — unlike a half-jar of mayonnaise Reed picked from a recycling container Thursday.

The list is based on what is accepted at the places Waste Management brings its loads. In past years, up to 20% contamination was tolerable. As China has become more selective, that has been cut to 5%.

“It costs so much money to truck it there, and it costs so much money to get here, and then they reject it, and you’ve got to bring it back,” Reed said.

At the time of the five-year contracts with Houghton and Hancock, Waste Management was able to get recycling processed with no extra cost. Many processors are closing or cutting back the types of materials they handle, said Mark Harrick, Waste Management’s district operations manager.

As a result, recycling has gone from a possible break-even service for Waste Management to a loss leader.

“If you can put your cardboard in the county transfer station, that’s OK with us, because we don’t get any money for your recycling,” he said. “We’re just hoping someone takes it and charges us nothing or less.”

Right now, Waste Management is being charged $22 a ton at the site in Eagle River, Wisconsin, Reed said.

What Houghton and Hancock get charged on their next contract depends on the number of tons being recycled, how far Waste Management has to transport it and the rate it gets.

Eagle River has not cut back on materials and has added a second shift to keep up with demand, CCRI member Susan Burack said.

However, Waste Management continues to evaluate where its best option lies, Harrick said.

“Right now, we’re going wherever the most economical as a company we can service it,” he said.

The surplus of recycled goods is having some benefits locally, said Brian Burke of the Department of Environmental Quality. The U.P. Paper mill in Manistique uses cardboard to make its products. Resolute Forest Products in Menominee buys office paper to make recycled content pulp.

Recycling creates five jobs for every one created by putting it in the landfill.

“All the times you’re paying for the service, you’re also paying for the other economies in the Upper Peninsula,” he said.

Only clean cardboard — no pizza boxes — is accepted at the cardboard recycling at the Houghton County Transfer Station, said Houghton County Commissioner Tom Tikkanen, also chairman of the Solid Waste Committee.

The transfer station has offered cardboard recycling since 2016. Last year, the county shipped out almost 54 tons of cardboard, Tikkanen said.

It nearly pays for itself, despite the “significant” electricity cost, Tikkanen said.

Even with that number, there is room for growth. Many users are not separating out cardboard from their deposits at the transfer station. The county also has bins for metal and oil waste at the station.

The county has experimented with having a floor worker separate clean cardboard from the other loads coming in, Tikkanen said.

“From a practical standpoint and safety standpoint, that’s not always going to be possible, because it’s a busy facility,” he said.