Recycling industry crumbling after US cut off by China

Recycling officials across the Bay Area say their operating costs are in the red after the United States was cut off from sending recyclable materials to China.

They are urging residents to be very mindful of what materials can and cannot be recycled amid the financial struggles. But they say the industry faces collapse unless someone comes up with a long-term solution, and fast. 

"We're not doing that great," said Earl Gloster, director of solid waste in Clearwater. "Our recycling program is in the red right now. We're upside down right now."

China stopped accepting American recyclables in 2018. Since then, recycling programs across the United States are paying more to send recyclables to other countries. Chinese processors had taken over the market and now, without them, the cost of sending recyclables to other countries has skyrocketed.

"Continuing in the red is not sustainable," said Gloster.

Tampa's director of solid waste, Mark Wilfalk says the city's contract with its current processor will be expiring soon. Once it does, Wilfalk says Tampa will likely be in the same financial situation as Clearwater.

In Sarasota County, which also cited financial woes stemming from China's decision, about 10% of items put into recycling bins goes to a landfill instead. Most of those items are thrown out because they are not made from recyclable materials.

Although Bay Area officials agree the recycling movement is worth saving, solutions need to come quick.

"No one really knows, in the industry, we're all kind of scratching our heads trying to figure it out," said Wilfalk.

Until the industry makes a comeback, officials are reminding residents they play a major role in keeping costs low. Recycling the wrong materials makes the process more expensive, and can even contaminate an entire truckload of recyclables, which in turn ends up in a landfill.