Bales of cardboard waiting to be shipped at the Walton County Recycling Center. Each weighs one ton. 

A little over a year ago, China decided to stop buying our junk.

For over 25 years, Chinese industries bought the bulk of American recyclable goods and turned them back into useable products.

But that ground to a halt in 2017, when the government announced an initiative called “National Sword.”

The thrust of the program was to reduce imported recycling, which the Chinese said had grown too contaminated, and to boost recycling within China.

Recycling is a business, to some degree, as companies buy the material from recyclers with the goal of transforming and re-selling it.

National Sword effectively cut out the biggest buyer of our old beer bottles, laundry detergent containers, milk jugs and mayonnaise jars.

In Walton County, one recycling program was affected. Another was not. The reasons why reveal two general theories of how to best recycle.

Over at the Walton County recycling center off Leroy Anderson Road, there are different bins for different items.

Plastics go in one. Cardboard in another. Glass elsewhere. Cans, shredded paper, even old computers and tires all have their place.

People drive up and sort their recycling themselves.

The plastics, for example, are then sorted into three metal cages, each about the size of a bedroom in the back of the open-air warehouse. Eventually, they fill up.

Then, all that plastic, all those leftovers of every day life, get packed down into a block about the size of a couch.

One cage makes one block. Each block weighs a little less than a ton.

Once the center has collected 14 tons of plastic, those blocks get loaded onto a 53-foot truck and shipped to a company in Pennsylvania, where they get turned into the backing on carpet or into composite decking materials.

A similar process happens for cardboard and cans.

The center gets about $80 for each ton of plastic and somewhere around $120 for a ton of cardboard, depending on market fluctuations.

Each year, Executive Director Kenny Sargent said, the operation just about breaks even.

And this is just about how things have chugged along for years. National Sword didn’t affect the Walton County operation much.

That’s because, Sargent said, the center is able to sell a clean product, since people sort their recycling themselves. Glass doesn’t get mixed up in the plastic. Plastic bags don’t mingle with the cans.

This allows Walton County to sell directly to buyers, though Sargent is the first to say that the point of the recycling program is to keep material out of the landfill, not to make money.

Monroe does things much differently. The city allows customers to opt into recycling programs, which about 25 percent do, said Danny Smith, Monroe’s Solid Waste Director.

Once they do and get an 18-gallon bin, they can put all their recyclable material into the bin and leave it by the curb.

Once a week, Monroe workers come by, pick it up, and toss all the contents into a truck.

Then, they cart that material down to Pratt Industries in Conyers. Pratt then uses a mechanized system to sort everything out and then sell it.

Monroe doesn’t get paid for its product. At best, Smith said, they don’t have to pay to drop it off.

In the recycling business, this is called single-stream recycling. Over the past decades, Smith and Sargent both said, America has shifted to single-stream. It’s easier for people to do. It’s one of the reasons recycling is growing in America.

But that convenience comes at a cost. The big reason China instituted the National Sword program was because American recycling had become too contaminated.

And the big reason American recycling got too contaminated was the shift to single stream.

Glass, for instance, is a problem. There’s a big market for recycled glass, but too often, it breaks and the shards get mixed up with everything else.

That’s why last March, Monroe had to stop taking glass. Smith said he’s looking into ways to get back into it, but at this point, Pratt won’t take it.

The holy grail of the recycling world is to be able to run a single-stream system without getting too much contamination. The technology to sort recycling is getting better, but as National Sword illustrated, it’s not quite there yet.

Everyone can help, Smith and Sargent said. Take an extra thirty-seconds to sort through recycling before tossing it in the bin.

It can make a difference between that Coke bottle ending up in someone’s deck and ending up in the landfill.

Andrew Kenneson was a staff writer for The Walton Tribune from 2018-20.

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