Written By: Matt Johnson, Sustainability Manager, Pierce Energy Planning
Americans recycle millions of tons of trash each year and they trust the items they toss in the blue bin won’t end up in a landfill. Citizens hope the stuff they recycle will be repurposed and turned into a reusable good. Unfortunately, most of these materials aren’t being recycled.
A myriad of reasons exists for this recycling crisis, but two issues loom large:
People aren’t recycling properly
In the past, many municipalities would ship much of their used paper, plastic, or scrap items to China for processing. This would include many of the milk cartons and plastic containers most of us are familiar with recycling daily.Americans recycle nearly 66 million tons of materials a year, according to the most recent data available from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of the 66 million tons, roughly one-third of the material was exported, with the majority going to China.
In the middle of last summer, China applied a ban on recyclable materials entering the country. China decided to implement the waste ban due to contaminated recyclables. China began imposing more stringent restrictions on recycled materials, which increased the price on these products as much as 10 percent. China has imposed a 99.5 percent contaminate-free specification for incoming materials. Currently, 20 percent of Tucson’s recyclable materials are contaminated, and Phoenix is estimated at 30 percent.
With the new ban, Americans will need to find new ways to separate and process all the materials efficiently. Some states and municipalities have tried to find alternative markets for these materials, others have stockpiled the recyclable waste in case China changes their mind, and some have shipped the items to landfills or waste-to-energy incineration facilities. Another primary method to combat the change is upgrading the existing facilities to meet the demand.
Municipal Upgrades and Trends
Many local municipalities and companies are heeding the call to action and are investing in upgrades to current facilities to meet demand. The Salt River Recycling Facility owned by Republic Services closed in February 2019 to allow for more than $3 million worth of upgrades. The upgrades will include a ballistic separator and aims to increase throughput by 3-5 tons per hour to reach levels prior to the China ban. Republic Services Tucson Material Recovery Facility (MRF) is set to acquire new optical sorters this year.
Additionally, the Phoenix MRF will receive a $4.5 million upgrade with funding from a $3 million no-interest loan form the Closed Loop Fund. The upgrades intend to restore the loss yield and production speed necessary to comply with the new quality standards for recycled commodities. This would attempt to keep Phoenix on track for their goal of zero waste by 2050. The city of Phoenix currently has a 40 by 20 goal, which is a public goal to divert 40 percent of the waste in Phoenix, specifically the waste the city hauls to the landfill by 2020. The Flagstaff City Council approved in November 2018 upgrades to their waste collection fleet for nearly $30 million. The aim of the upgrades will be to improve safe collection and extend the lifespan of the landfill operations to 2050.
The purpose for the upgrades is to capture the increased demand of raw material which need processed due to the Chinese import ban, but they come at a cost. Most of these upgrades will need to be passed on to consumers in the forms of higher rates. According to Republic Services, an estimated 20% of its municipal customers have agreed to mid-contract price increases. Flagstaff commercial residents could see rate increases as high as 3 percent annually.
The rate increases are a direct result of the facility upgrades, but a driving factor for the upgrades is to meet the high demand of raw materials which need to be processed. Many of the items sent to an MRF to be recycled are either non-recyclable materials or contaminated. Therefore, more items have to be shipped to landfills and the rates will continue to increase. On average, it costs $30 to recycle materials, $50 to send it to the landfill, and $65-$75 to incinerate it.
What Can I Do?
The facility upgrades can curb the demand to reach levels prior to the China ban, but proper recycling practices can reduce the influx of materials these facilities receive. As a result, more materials are being repurposed and these facilities can function more efficiently. Greater Phoenix has one of the lowest recycling rates in the country, at around 30 percent.
When you are recycling, do not throw the items into the bin with a plastic bag. Plastic bags by themselves may be recyclable materials, but lumping them in with the rest of your items can cause operational issues. Many grocery stores and Walmart accept plastic bag recycling. It is a safe bet you cannot recycle Styrofoam and should not include it in the blue bin. A person should always check their juice boxes and milk cartons. These may seem like easy recyclable materials, but in fact some are lined with aluminum foil or a low-density polyethylene and are hard to separate in processing.
As a simple reminder, ensure the materials you are recycling are clean, dry, and empty. If possible, break down any cardboard boxes to ensure the container is empty. A person should not use their recycling container for non-recyclables such as grass, yard, or food waste. As well, do not throw away any items which still contain food waste or grease, such as pizza boxes. For plastic items, check for the label on the back or bottom to determine the type of plastic, and check with your local collection agency if they accept this plastic.
According to the City of Scottsdale, no new recyclable items are being added to the list nor are they removing any from their acceptable items; the same is true for the City of Phoenix. A few links have been provided below with acceptable recyclable materials and best practices in certain areas of Arizona.