PEORIA — Before China and the United States started slapping tariffs on each other, the Asian nation announced restrictions that sent a U.S. industry reeling.

The U.S. recycling industry received bad news at the start of the year. "Trade restrictions put in place by China totally banned mixed paper," said Todd Shumaker, VP of sales for Midwest Fiber, the Chillicothe-based recycling firm.

The ban on mixed paper, the recycling industry's terminology for the combination of newspapers, office paper and chipboard (cereal boxes, shoe boxes, etc.), hurts because "55 percent of this country's mixed paper used to go to China," said Shumaker.

That's sent the market for mixed paper tumbling, said Matt Coulter, VP at Peoria-based PDC, the waste collection firm that has a contract with the city of Peoria.

Mixed paper sells for $25 a ton, he said. That's down from an average price of $85 a ton, said Coulter, noting that, before the bottom dropped out of the mixed paper market, PDC signed a contract with Pratt Industries, a processing plant in Valparaiso, Ind.

While PDC has an outlet for their paper, other recyclers are sitting on vast stores of paper bales. "A big part of the cost is transportation. That's why they bale it," he said.

China also called for "cleaner" loads on recyclables they do accept, requiring U.S. recyclers to sort out garbage that finds its way into the stream of cardboard, plastics and glass. 

While costs and markets for recycled products may fluctuate, recycling remains a big part of the waste collection scene in central Illinois.

Eight-two percent of those responding to a recent city survey supported increased recycling. Under the city's present contract with PDC, curbside recyclables are picked up once a month.

While the survey indicates strong interest, only 25 percent of Peoria households take part in curbside recycling. That doesn't surprise Coulter. "Nationally, the same number of people have been recycling — 35 percent — since 2005," he said.

Nevertheless, recycling has grown since PDC got involved, said Coulter. "It's the company's fastest growing segment. It's up 200 percent since 2015," he said.

Growing the recycling side of the trash business doesn't comes without a cost. Coulter said that PDC plans on a $2-million overhaul of the company's recycling facility in South Pekin purchased from Moline-based Midland Davis in 2015.

Rebranded as Area Recycling Inc., PDC's recycling facility processes 2,000 tons a month — up from the 500 tons a month that Midland Davis processed. The renovations will allow PDC to sort through the single stream of recyclables more quickly and more efficiently, said Coulter.

One of the benefits a new assembly line will bring is the ability to better sort out glass, he said. "Glass tears up the equipment. It's very abrasive," said Coulter.

Other recyclables have their own characteristics. While glass is heavy, plastic is light. "The plastic market is pretty stable," said Coulter.

Another category is cardboard or, to use the recycling acronym, OCC — old corrugated containers. "There's always a market for OCC," Coulter said.

"Recycling's a great thing, but you have to have markets," he said.

Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or starter@pjstar.com. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.