ROCKFORD — Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful has more than 7 tons of plastic stored in its recycling center and no place to send it nearly a year after China began to refuse shipments of recyclable plastics from the West.

Hundreds of drivers line up each week to drop off recyclables, including plastics marked with a “1” or “2” at the nonprofit Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful’s center on Hydraulic Drive in Rockford. The recyclable plastic bottles are accepted by volunteers, collected in huge bins and later compressed by a machine into 350-pound bales. The bales are stacked floor to ceiling in a storage area.

There they will stay. And no one knows for how long, Executive Director Pam Osborne said.

“We are keeping our community clean and keeping it out of the landfill,” Osborne said. “That’s our whole purpose.”

China's once voracious appetite for the West's recyclables for years hid the realities of market forces at play on the economics of recycling. That ended when China passed a policy it called “National Sword” that banned post-consumer plastic and mixed paper imports starting this year. China said the plastics it was importing were too often dirty, of low quality or contaminated with nonrecyclable material.

Although it's easy to blame China's change in policy, Advanced Disposal Communications Director Mark Nighbor said China is essentially demanding higher-quality recyclable materials. In addition to banning some recyclable materials, China instituted a standard that other materials, such as cardboard and aluminum, can be at most 0.5 percent impure.

The change has exposed what Nighbor said is a "deterioration of the recycling markets." Because petroleum is used to manufacture plastic, the price of oil and petroleum products often drives the value of recyclable plastics. If the price of oil is cheap, as it is now, it is cheaper to buy new plastic products than recycled plastic. Additionally, the cost of shipping plastic to a recylcer can often outweigh the value of the material, Nighbor said.

Further complicating matters is the convenience of single stream or co-mingled recycling — allowing people to toss paper products, plastics, metals into a single recylcing bin. Too often, critics say, people hope that something is recyclable and will throw it in a recycle bin even if it's not recyclable, a phenomenon called "aspirational recycling."

"It is doing more harm than good," Nighbor said.

Recycling the right way could help. If in doubt, throw it out into the garbage. Plastic grocery bags jam sorting machines. And although cardboard is among the more valuable recyclable commodities of the Amazon age, that greasy pizza box belongs in the garbage, not the recycling bin, Nighbor said.

"China was consuming significant volumes of recycling material regardless of the quality," Nighbor said. "When I say quality, that means that they don’t want garbage mixed in with recycling. They were consuming an enormous amount, and finally came back and said, 'Enough is enough.'"

With the world’s largest destination for recyclable plastics suddenly eliminated, people are scrambling to figure out what to do with all the plastic that’s piling up, said Beverly Ashley Broyles, director of development and communication for Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful.

The nonprofit's recycling center has space to stockpile more plastic for months to come in hopes an affordable solution is identified.

“Our promise to the public as a nonprofit organization is to keep this out of the landfill,” Broyles said. “We don’t want to break that promise. Because of the ban in China, there are a lot of recycling agencies that are having to resort to taking it to a landfill. We are trying to do everything we can for that never to happen.”

Jeff Kolkey: 815-987-1374; jkolkey@rrstar.com; @jeffkolkey