The large green recycling bins for plastic were still in place Monday morning at Owensboro's drop-off recycling center on West Seventh Street, but they were scheduled to be taken away by city workers later that day.
Edwin Stafford had come to the center to drop off some plastic and other materials. Stafford didn't know it then, but the city was ceasing all plastic recycling as of Monday. Stafford said he likely wouldn't be back to the recycling center.
"I guess I'll go to the landfill," Stafford said.
The city, which stopped taking No. 1 plastic bottles some time ago, suspended all plastic recycling as of Monday. City Public Works Director Wayne Shelton said there are no local companies that take plastic, and shipping it to Evansville would be cost-prohibitive.
"The bottom has fallen out of the plastic market," Shelton said. "No local vendor is accepting it."
Part of the city's problem starts in a seemingly unlikely place, China. While China used to take tons of plastic and other potentially recyclable materials from the U.S., that stopped last year. Public Radio International reported in January of last year that China began enforcing the "National Sword" policy, which PRI said, "bans 24 types of solid waste, including various plastics and unsorted mixed materials ..."
"The U.S. was shipping a lot of things to China, and in the pictures I've seen, where it was going was in the trash," said Missy Patton, facility manager for Tri-State Resource Recovery in Evansville. Before National Sword, China was the largest importer of plastics from the U.S., she said.
China getting out of U.S. recycling "has turned the market upside down," Shelton said. Meanwhile, lower petroleum prices caused the demand for recyclable plastic to drop. Petroleum byproducts such as polypropylene are key components of plastic production.
With no local vendor available to take Owensboro's plastic, "for us to keep continuing to accept it, I'd have to haul it somewhere," Shelton said. The closest place would be Evansville, but that would require sorting the plastic and storing it until it could be hauled.
"From a business standpoint, it doesn't make business sense to do it," Shelton said.
It would cost from $400 to $500 monthly to recycle the city's plastic in Evansville, and taking it to the Daviess County Landfill would cost the city $27 a ton, Shelton said.
"Are we saying we'll never take recycling? No," Shelton said. "But I have to have a market. I have to have a place to take it."
Shelton said there is an environmental consideration to sending the city's plastic to Evansville. "Then you get the carbon footprint of having to haul it a distance" versus the "carbon footprint of what you're saving in landfill space."
Darrin Payne, operations and sales manager of GO Recycling, said the company is still accepting recycled plastic. The firm still has markets for plastic in Louisville and other cities.
But GO Recycling does not have the capability to take on the plastic that was being recycled through the city's program, he said.
"It's not something I would be able to do for them," Payne said. "My customers do pay a fee for curbside service, and that offsets the price (of plastic) being low."
The city of Henderson is sending its recyclable materials to Evansville, Shelton said.
Jean Carlton, director of solid waste management for the city of Evansville, said the city has a contract for Republic Services to collect recycled plastic from homes, but that could change when the city renegotiates its contract with Republic in the next few years.
The Owensboro recycling center is still accepting cardboard, newsprint, aluminum cans and steel cans. The market for aluminum cans and steel cans is stable, and the market for newsprint and cardboard is "marginal," although there's still a benefit for the city to recycle it, Shelton said.
"If it comes up where it's detrimental to operations (to recycle cardboard), I, as a director, can't say, 'We're going to continue to do this,' " he said.
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse