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Many US recyclables don't actually get recycled — ever since China stopped buying paper and plastic



DES MOINES, Iowa (CIRCA via KGAN/KFXA) — Iowa's largest recycling plant sent 20 tons of mixed paper materials to the landfill instead of manufacturers that create new products.

Officials at MidAmerica Recyling in Des Moines, which serves most of Central Iowa, say for the first part of this year, the recycling plant had no other choice. This is largely due to stricter rules from China about what solid waste materials it would purchase — part of the country's effort to curb the amount of contamination from non-recyclable materials.

China was responsible for purchasing 65 percent of residential recycling globally, says Michael Barry, president of MidAmerica Recycling. He says this trickled down and affected markets everywhere, leaving his company with virtually no options.

"What are you putting in the recycle bin that shouldn’t be in there? That’s what caused the problem."
Michael Barry, MidAmerica Recycling president

"We were actually paying paper mills to take our materials to the point that it became more cost-effective to send one-third of production to the landfill," Barry said, which translates to 20 tons of paper per day.

The root of the problem? People try to recycle materials they can't, which contaminates the materials that are actually recyclable, Barry said. His Des Moines facility receives, on average, about 16 percent of garbage mixed in with recyclables.

"When in doubt, throw it out," Barry said.

He notes that just because it's plastic or metal doesn't mean it can be recycled. During the holidays, he says his team typically sifts through broken lights, which people often mistake as recyclable.

"The real answer is we need to solve the real problem and we need to look in the mirror: What are you putting in the recycle bin that shouldn’t be in there? That’s what caused the problem," Barry said.

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