Recycling participation at an all-time high, but what are implications from Far East decision?

A view of a Phoenix metropolitan community’s solid waste department’s operations where the municipality offers a rubbish and recycling pick-up program. (File photo)

The implications of a 2013 decision made more than 7,000 miles away in the heart of the Far East is beginning to reverberate in the United States of America.

The Republic of China in February 2013 began a program called Green Fence, which then matured into the National Sword effort and now translates to an almost outright ban of what American’s call “recyclables.”

In a formal announcement in July 2017, Chinese officials announced the Republic’s intentions to the World Trade Organization it will no longer be accepting the world’s — most critically those hailing from the U.S. — rubbish and recovered materials.

The ban has been in effect since Jan. 1, 2018.

Private sector officials contend the shift in the global recyclable marketplace will likely reshape the beloved conservation narrative for future generations.

In the Town of Queen Creek, where one business has a sole-provider contract, revenue to the town has decreased for recyclables collection.

In Apache Junction and Gold Canyon, three private businesses provide solid-waste collection.

That may change in the coming years, as Apache Junction voters on Aug. 28 approved a permanent base adjustment budget that would be adjusted annually by population and inflation. The city’s budget could be as high as $93 million, which could allow it to fund water, sewer, trash or transit services, officials said prior to the election.

Discussions on what services to offer with the new permanent base adjustment approved by the voters will ramp up as city officials begin drafting the budget for the next fiscal year.

From a negative to a positive?

Representatives of two American waste-hauler juggernauts — Waste Management and Republic Services — say recycling participation is at an all-time high.

“However, recycling contamination rates also are at all-time highs,” said Marek Crabbs, Republic Services area director of sales.

“Around the country, more than 30 percent of residential recycling is contaminated — either by food or other residue, or by items that aren’t recyclable. The problem reached a crisis level earlier this year with the adoption of new quality standards by China, which had been the U.S.’s largest market for recycled paper and plastics. Until this year, about 40 percent of U.S. recyclables were shipped to China; for Republic Services, it was about 30 percent. Today, we’re sending less than 1 percent of our recyclables to China.”

Republic Services is the second largest waste services provider in the country operating in 40 states, hosting 343 collection operations, 204 transfer stations, 195 active landfills, 90 recycling centers, seven treatment, recovery and disposal facilities, and 11 salt water disposal wells.

The company is publicly traded, has more than 30,000 employees, carries an estimated value of $20 billion and, in 2008, purchased Allied Waste Industries, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Crabbs says changes to China intake rules has made the company better.

“It forced us to hit a needed reset, and we’re already better off for it,” he said. “The restrictions forced us to explore new markets, open new shipping lanes and work with new ports.”

Through necessity oftentimes comes innovation, Mr. Crabbs points out.

“We’re actively exploring new markets — both internationally and domestically — to grow the business for the long-term without shipping to China. We are very much committed to the recycling business and view it as a good long-term investment,” he said.

“We’re also working to drive awareness of the contamination issue among consumers. Many of them don’t know what is recyclable today or how to do it in a way that doesn’t contaminate other material.”

Mr. Crabbs explains economic viability plays a major role in how recycling programs are developed.

“You can’t have sustainability without economic viability, and we’re seeing that play out today,” he said. “Recycling participation is at an all-time high, but today’s pricing model doesn’t come close to covering the actual costs. The average American household pays only approximately $20 a month for weekly garbage and recycling services. Most consumers would be shocked to learn that around $15 of those dollars cover garbage, and only $5 covers the cost of recycling, despite the fact that the collection and processing of recycled material is actually much higher than that of garbage.”

Mr. Crabbs says recycling costs could be on the rise.

“We believe consumers today would be willing to pay $5 more a month — the equivalent of a specialty coffee drink — to cover the real costs associated with local recycling programs,” he said. “Or more simply put, if you are going to pay $1 to trash something, wouldn’t you also pay $1 to recycle it?”

A far-reaching decision

Jennifer Rivera, Waste Management’s communications director, says as China installed its ban other ports around the world tightened their restrictions as well.

“While China imposed the limits, other buyers are expecting low contamination,” she said of the now typical .5 percent acceptable contamination rate for delivered recyclables.

“Decreased demand from China along with stricter quality requirements have created higher global supply and put downward pressure on commodity prices. The average value of a ton of single-stream recyclables has fallen 50 percent since 2017, while processing costs have increased. Every community and every recycler is impacted.”

The global recyclables marketplace has changed due to China’s lead on contamination requirements.
“Over the past 20 years, China became the primary market for recyclables from across the globe,” Ms. Rivera explains.

“Through 2017, nearly 30 percent of all recyclables were imported by China, including half of the paper and plastics recycled across the globe. Waste Management is now exporting less than 5 percent of material to China, compared to 27 percent last year.”

Founded in 1971, Waste Management’s service network includes an estimated 367 collection operations, 346 transfer stations, 293 active landfill sites, 146 recycling plants, 111 beneficial-use landfill gas projects and six independent power production plants.

Waste Management services nearly 21 million accounts, carries an estimated value of more than $21 billion and employs more than 42,000 people.

And, many of those employees are routinely decontaminating recyclables many believe are, in fact, recyclable.

“On average, one in four items put in a Waste Management recycling container is not recyclable. These items include non-recyclable materials that must be sorted out and disposed — like food, clothes and yard waste — materials that create safety threats for our workers — like batteries, propane tanks, pool chemicals and medical needles — and recyclable materials that have been ruined by food, liquids and other contaminants,” Mr. Rivera points out.

“For context, if a typical bale of recyclable materials weighs one ton that means we must reduce contamination from 500 pounds to 10 pounds to meet the 0.5 percent standard.”

Ms. Rivera explains stringent quality standards have changed the day-to-day operations of Waste Management.

“To meet the stringent quality standard, we have added labor and slowed down processing lines at our material recovery facilities to hand-pick more contamination from lines,” she said.

“We spend extra time quality-checking finished bales to remove any contaminants. The non-recyclable material ‘residue’ removed during processing must be transported to a landfill for disposal. These measures improve quality but also raise processing costs.”

Ms. Rivera says for recycling to continue Americans need to better understand the difference between recycling and what industry officials have coined, “wishcycling.”

“China’s policies affect the recycling industry on an international scale. This is an industry challenge and Waste Management is collaborating with industry partners and customers to address,” she said.

“For years we have worked hard to increase the amount of material being recycled and we’re finding that effort may have had unintended consequences which led to ‘wishcycling’. The additional materials have increased the cost of recycling without the desired environmental benefits.”

Waste Management officials say challenges can bring new opportunities.

“So, although this is a challenge, the global market conditions afford us the opportunity to educate customers to make sure we are achieving the right environmental benefits with recycling,” Ms. Rivera explains.

“We are committed to maintaining the true purpose of recycling – to conserve valuable resources and divert recyclable material from disposal. Recyclers need to be compensated for their processing costs before sharing in any potential revenue generated in the sale of recyclable materials.”

Queen Creek recycles

The Town of Queen Creek contracts with Right Away Disposal for trash and recycling.

Maureen Schubert

Recycling collection is an important service to offer to Queen Creek residents, according to Marnie Schubert, Queen Creek’s communications, marketing and recreation director.

“Residential recycling helps to keep trash collection and disposal costs low to the resident by diverting material from the landfill and selling it as a commodity; which in turn creates jobs, saves energy, and preserves natural resources,” she said.

The town receives revenue from recycables collected from its residents, Ms. Schubert said.

“The town does receive a revenue share from Right Away Disposal for the recycling materials collected through residential curbside recycling, the town’s Neighborhood Recycling Drop-off Center and town-facility recycling containers,” she said.

The Neighborhood Recycling Drop-off Center is at Crewse Lane and Ellsworth Road in Town Center, across from Founders’ Park’s splash pad, just south of Town Hall. Acceptable items include: plastic bottles and containers, milk or juice cartons, aluminum or metal cans, paper and corrugated cardboard, glass bottles and jars, according to queencreek.org.

From 2014 to 2018, the town has collected more than 15,700 tons of recycling and has received a total of $115,232 in revenue share, including:

  • Fiscal year 2014: $17,696.
  • Fiscal year 2015: $17,202.
  • Fiscal year 2016: $21,739.
  • Fiscal year 2017: $37,982.
  • Fiscal year 2018: $20,613.

Hazardous-waste collections are also offered, but no revenue is received by the town from recycling the materials, she said.

“The town has an intergovernmental agreement with the Town of Gilbert, which allows QC residents to utilize Gilbert’s household hazardous waste facility through a voucher system. The town does not receive any revenues from HHW,” she said.

The Gilbert household hazardous waste facility is at 2224 E. Queen Creek Road, west of Greenfield Road, according to queencreek.org.

Apache Junction recycles

Residents of Apache Junction can choose from three waste-collection providers in the city. They are Republic Services, which also owns the landfill at 4050 S. Tomahawk Road; Right Away Disposal and Waste Management.

Right Away Disposal and Waste Management offer recycling, according to Al Bravo, the city’s public information officer.

“The city does not provide any trash or recycling to residents,” Mr. Bravo said.

The city of Apache Junction also doesn’t receive any revenue from recycling. And there are no recycling bins on city property that provide funds to the city, he said.

The city doesn’t require residents to have solid waste or recycling collection, but the Apache Junction City Council in May voted to direct city staff members to study requiring all homes to have trash and recyclables picked up.

Recycling opportunities offered by the city include:

  • Twice-a-year household hazardous waste, white goods, electronic recycling and document shredding collections. The last one was Nov. 17 at the city’s public works operations yard, 575 E. Baseline Road. The household hazardous waste collection was for items that typically cannot be deposited into the regular trash. An effort is to be made to recycle much of what is collected, Mr. Bravo said in a release.
  • The annual holiday tree collection. Instead of sending a live tree to a landfill, think “treecycle,” by recycling the freshly cut holiday tree, according to a release. The sites available to accept trees for recycling are open 24 hours a day for free drop-off through Feb. 3, 2019. They are at Paws & Claws Care Center, 725 E. Baseline Ave.; and Prospector Park, 3015 N. Idaho Road. Residents are asked to remove all nails, stands, tinsel, lights and ornaments from trees. Flocked trees will not be accepted because the flocking does not break down in the environment.

The city receives no revenue from businesses recycling the items for the hazardous waste collection, Mr. Bravo said in the e-mailed response to questions.

The tree-recycling program costs $1,800 a year, he said.

“Trees are recycled into mulch being used for landscaping purposes, as an open-space dust suppressant and as a media for sewage treatment,” he said.

Managing Editor Terrance Thornton, who contributed to the article, can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com.

Editor Richard Dyer can be contacted via e-mail at rdyer@newszap.com or at twitter.com/rhdyer or facebook.com/RichardDyerJournalist

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