Many people toss a plastic water bottle or aluminum can into a recycling bin with little thought. But in some cities, recycling’s cost and viability have come under discussion.
The city of Wanamingo, for example, recently looked at rising recycling costs, questioning whether it’s worth the price and where, exactly, recycled materials truly end up.
A major factor behind rising costs is China’s rules on contamination levels. In late 2017, China — which purchased a significant amount of American recyclables — tightened its requirements on acceptable contamination levels and stopped accepting mixed paper and plastics. This put more pressure on American companies to pre-sort and clean recycling materials, and created a market with more supply than demand.
In many cases, this led to increased costs passed on to consumers, according to Jason Nieson of Waste Management, who in a July 22 presentation to the Wanamingo City Council.
“I apologize if you had a little sticker shock with the recycling, but that’s happening everywhere,” said Nieson.
Currently, residential customers in Wanamingo pay $2.75 a month for recycling. When the City Council recently opened its solid waste removal contracts for bids, Waste Management (the lowest bidder) came in with a bid that would more than double current recycling payments. Kenyon residents pay $5 a month for recycling.
According to a March 2019 New York Times article, several major cities have recently reduced or ended their recycling programs. Philadelphia now burns about half of its recycling to produce energy rather than converting it into new material, and Deltona, Florida suspended its recycling program altogether.
The costs led Wanamingo City Council members to also consider whether a recycling program is truly worth the price.
While the industry is in a period of change, it’s not going away, said Nieson. Companies like Waste Management are working to find new domestic markets for recycled materials, investing in new technology to improve sorting and processing. Nieson assured the council that, despite current challenges, properly recycled materials don’t end up in the landfill.
And even if market prices for recycling materials aren’t what they used to be, Paul Piper, Rice County’s recycling and hazardous waste supervisor, noted that selling materials for even a low price is better than simply sending them to the landfill.
“Even with the bad markets, you might see 5 or $10 a ton versus the 75 a ton, but then it’s actually being rescued, so it’s not taking up landfill space. Once the landfills fill up, you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do with that,” said Piper.
The situation is a little different in Rice County, where residents don’t pay extra for recycling, compared to Goodhue County where each city contracts individually with hauling companies.
For Rice County, recycling isn’t as profitable as it was 10 years ago, said Piper. He expects a lag while American companies build up recycling infrastructure to process materials without sending them overseas, after which the industry may see a rebound.
‘Free your recycling’
The shift toward single-sort recycling, where residents throw everything in a one bin rather than separating types of materials, has also created additional contamination issues that put supply at odds with China’s demand for cleaner materials. When residents try to “wish-cycle” — or attempt to recycle materials that just aren’t recyclable — it can be costly to separate or decontaminate other materials.
Common culprits are pizza boxes (which are contaminated with food grease, even though they’re made of cardboard), hoses and electric cords (which can jam sorting machinery), Styrofoam and plastic toys. Generally, rinsed plastics numbered one through five are acceptable. This includes water bottles, shampoo bottles, yogurt containers, etc.
One of Waste Management’s biggest problems is when people toss their recycling enclosed in plastic bags. Nieson reminded residents to “free your recycling.” The plastic bags themselves are not recyclable, either.
Sometimes, sorting facilities will pull large pieces of recyclable scrap metal found in regular garbage. But for the most part, said Piper, recyclable materials like plastic bottles thrown into the trash will end up in a landfill.
Education about proper recycling is one key to reducing landfill waste and maximizing the benefits of recycling, said Piper. Another is thinking ahead before items even reach the bins. Many are familiar with the three Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle — which advise consumers to reuse items wherever possible and buy products made from recyclable materials.
Piper also added a fourth R: rethink.
”Do you really need these products? Think about what your actions are and how you interact with your community and the environment,” said Piper.