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RACINE — Like many municipalities nationwide, the City of Racine has seen a drop in sales for its recyclable materials.

Mark Yehlen, the city’s public works commissioner, reported during budget hearings this month that the city had a $75,000 drop this year in sales of its recyclable materials.

Last year, the city signed a new five-year contract with Town of Norway-based Johns Disposal Service. Tom Eeg, assistant public works commissioner, said the contract runs through Dec. 31, 2022.

Once a city recycling truck is full, it drops off its materials at Johns, which receives an initial processing fee of $45 per ton. After the materials have been sorted and sold, Johns gives the city 80 percent of the proceeds and keeps 20 percent for itself.

For the city, the estimated cost to provide the service in 2019 is $1,925,425, which will be covered through property taxes ($314,725), a state recycling grant ($315,000), charges for services ($860,700), revenue from the sale of recycled materials ($285,000) and funds left over from 2018 ($150,000).

Eeg said that in spite of the changes in the market, the city is not losing money on its recycling program.

“But it’s not as high as before — last year there was a profit with recycling,” said Eeg. “The recycling market is rough all over right now. It’s no different here than anywhere else.”

Nationwide downturn

The Associated Press reported earlier this month that municipalities across the country are seeing sales for recyclable materials drop, causing some municipalities to roll back or cancel their programs.

China, the largest importer of American recyclables, rolled out a new contamination rule at the beginning of 2018 that stated it would no longer accept shipments of paper, metals or plastics unless they are 99.5 percent “pure.”

A chart created by the London-based Financial Times in a report on U.S. recycling shows that in 2017 the bulk of U.S. recyclables were exported to China and Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory of China.

According to the Financial Times report, China’s growth as a manufacturing powerhouse in need of raw materials coincided with a growing recycling movement in the U.S. The two countries’ trade balance also helped; China sent shipping containers of finished goods to the U.S. and had little to transport from the U.S. to China, so the containers were filled with recyclables.

The Financial Times chart shows how much that has changed: in 2018, the biggest importer of the U.S. recyclables is Malaysia, followed by Vietnam and Thailand.

According to the AP, most U.S. processing plants are, at best, 97 percent pure of contaminants. Most plants are single-stream, so instead of residents cleaning and sorting their materials into paper, plastics and metals, that is done by the processors.

Food waste, greasy pizza boxes, plastic bags and other unrecyclable materials end up in the mix and in some cases, especially with food and grease, make otherwise recyclable materials useless.

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Reporter

Christina Lieffring covers the Burlington area and the Village of Caledonia. Before moving to Racine, she lived in Nebraska, Beijing, Chicago and grew up in Kansas City.

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