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With China restricting imports, is Whatcom’s recycling still being, well, recycled?

It’s taking longer, but Northwest Recycling Inc. continues to find markets for Whatcom County’s recycling — an increasingly difficult feat since China decided to stop accepting some recyclable trash while restricting others.

The decision by China, once a major buyer of the world’s and Washington state’s recyclables, has made the industry an uncertain one. U.S. cities and counties have struggled to find new markets and, in some, recycling has ended up in landfills.

Meanwhile, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission recently asked the state’s counties to rethink policies that require the recycling of some types of plastic, as well as other items, given the current struggles to find markets for them.

In Whatcom County, the glass, cans and paper that people put out curbside is still being recycled, Marty Kuljis, operations manager for Bellingham-based Northwest Recycling Inc., said in a phone interview with The Bellingham Herald last week.

Northwest Recycling is in the commodity recyclables business — meaning the company sells the items it collects at the going rate, which fluctuates.

All of Whatcom County’s curbside recycling goes to Northwest Recycling, where it is further sorted then sent to a number of locations in the U.S. and overseas for processing and to be turned into other products.

Kuljis has said that Whatcom County has been able to find markets for its recycling, including in Malaysia and Indonesia, because it stuck to requiring consumers to separate paper from glass, cans and plastic instead of allowing it all to be dumped into one large bin.

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Shovels, a rake and a broom used for cleanup lean against stacked bales of plastic at Northwest Recycling Inc. in Bellingham. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

That cut down on contamination, Kuljis said in the July 1 Bellingham Herald article.

Still, plastic, paper and cardboard remains difficult to move at this point, Kuljis told The Bellingham Herald.

“There’s markets for them,” Kuljis said. “It’s taking longer. It’s taking longer to ship them.”

That has, at different times, caused piles of recycling to grow at its plants in Bellingham, prompting some to ask Northwest Recycling Inc. what was going on.

Typhoons also have slowed shipping, he added.

As for the state UTC’s request, Kuljis said Northwest Recycling hasn’t yet been told “don’t ship these items because we can’t process them.”

The recyclables market remained unstable, he said.

“There’s a lot of questions out there,” Kuljis said, “but there’s not a lot of answers.”

As for what’s next, Kuljis tells Whatcom County recyclers: “Don’t be surprised with changes that may come in the future with stuff that may not be acceptable anymore.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea
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