Too many people put too many wrong items in recycle bins. Recycling problems create expensive headaches.
The cost of convenience in careless recycling will grow significantly in the near future. It will hit household budgets like never before.
The seeds of recycling wrong started years before recycling started at all.
In my childhood, for example, we separated wet garbage from dry trash. My mother wrapped the day’s garbage in a newspaper, and I carried it out and put it in the very stinky can. My parents paid two separate companies to carry the two kinds of trash away.
In fact, our trash didn’t include paper, except the papers Mom used to wrap the garbage. I burned it in our backyard incinerator. It also didn’t include beverage containers. Milk and sodas came in glass bottles. Stores charged a deposit, so we returned the bottles to get our money back.
Then a big city politician won election by promising more convenient trash collection.
Los Angeles politics and convenience in trash collecting
I grew up in a small town in northwestern Ohio, but I suppose what I described was fairly typical.
In 1957, Los Angeles County outlawed backyard incineration. It forced families there to separate refuse into three containers and pay three companies to haul it away.
Sam Yorty became mayor of Los Angeles in 1961. He campaigned on a platform of convenience to housewives. He promised to eliminate separation of trash.
A single trash hauler would collect everything from a single can and dump it in a canyon that supposedly wasn’t fit for anything else.
Eventually, municipalities all over the country adopted this innovation. We moved from the house where I burned the papers in 1965, and by that time I had already been relieved of that chore. It felt weird putting paper in the trash.
Interest in protecting the environment started to grow in the 1960s and culminated in Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Concerns addressed on that day didn’t include recycling, however. Household recycling wouldn’t become an option till much later. Even today, not every municipality offers it. And without Sam Yorty’s bright idea, it would surely have met with greater initial acceptance and enthusiasm.
What do we do with recyclables once we’ve collected them?
Recycling doesn’t mean simply hauling two containers out to the curb instead of one.
Someone has to sort all the recyclables––paper, plastic, glass, and metal––into specific kinds.
With single-stream recycling, the most common method in the US, it happens at a materials recovery facility (MRF).
Those familiar numbers on plastics identify six different resins, with no. 7 being a miscellaneous catch-all for many more. The MRF separates at least no. 1 and no. 2 from the rest. The MRF must also sort newsprint, office paper, magazines, and two kinds of cardboard, plus aluminum and “tin” cans.
Then some company has to buy sorted materials as raw materials and make new products from them. And finally, someone has to buy the products.
Finding a manufacturer to buy many kinds of recyclables has long been a problem. Especially since so much manufacturing has moved from the US to other countries.
So we started exporting collected recyclables. At first, China eagerly bought them. Problem solved?
We sent such contaminated recycling that the Chinese had to put a high percentage in their own landfills. Therefore they soon tired of serving as a dumping ground for our trash. They began to set minimum standards for what it would accept. Now it’s tightening them even more.
According to the World Trade Organization, China has reduced the amount of contamination it allows from 5% to 0.3%. Indeed, it may entirely ban importation of mixed paper and mixed plastic by the end of the year. As of September 1, four of China’s major scrap paper recyclers have not been able to accept imports. The Chinese government revoked their licenses.
The problem of contamination in recycling
Contamination refers introduce impurities into something.
If a bale that’s supposed to be office paper, contains some plastic, newsprint, or anything else that’s not office paper, it’s contaminated by them.
Some contamination of that kind will occur at the MRF in the process of sorting. Its customers, like China, set standards and return bales with more than a stipulated percentage of contamination.
More seriously, households contaminate the contents of their recycling containers by careless recycling. Too many people consistently do recycling wrong.
Back to office paper as an example, we put it in the same container with empty jars of ketchup or empty soda cans. Whatever food or drink spills out and gets on office paper contaminates it. Some company buys it from the MRF, probably to make recycled office paper. It can’t use contaminated paper to make good quality recycled paper.
Improper recycling not only contaminates recyclables. It can damage equipment, and even endanger human life.
Only a few MRFs can handle plastic bags, for example. For years, municipalities have instructed, even begged, households not to put them in recycling containers.
To no avail.
Other wrong items in recycling very commonly include the following:
- Food waste
- Jars and bottles still with product in them
- Batteries (and lithium batteries are a fire hazard)
- Wire, electric cords, hoses, and so on (which, like plastic bags, get tangled in rotating equipment and cause expensive damage.
- Scrap metal
- Syringes and needles
- Dirty diapers
Diapers! What kind of irresponsible, careless nut puts this kind of contaminants in recycling?
Syringes are medical waste. Don’t even put them in the trash. By law, medical waste requires special handling. Take it to a hospital, police station, someplace equipped to deal with it.
The high cost of improper recycling
Panic because of China’s latest crackdown
Several years ago, China eagerly accepted recycled materials. US recycling operators competed to move the most product overseas. They had little regard for providing a clean product.
Every time China announces stricter standards for the recyclables it imports, it sends shockwaves throughout the recycling industry.
The current Chinese crackdown is like a bad traffic accident that causes a backup on an interstate highway. It has revoked import licenses of four paper mills. It has set a standard of purity almost impossible for any MRF to achieve.
Already, cargo ships laden with recyclables bound for Chinese ports have nowhere to go. And so cargo companies can’t accept more shipments from American ports.
Local haulers and recycling facilities in effect wind up at the back of the line. They have few options for getting around the jam.
Las Cruces, New Mexico, has responded to news from China with a public education campaign with an emphasis I haven’t found elsewhere.
It not only urges that what goes in recycling containers must be clean and dry. It stresses that the definition of what’s acceptable recycling isn’t based on local decisions. It’s based on a set of contractual agreements that link local recycling efforts to Chinese ports.
Lane Apex, a hauler in Eugene, Oregon, has long trucked about 425 tons of recyclables annually to a MRF operated by EcoSort.
EcoSort then hauls material to facilities in Portland and Vancouver, Washington. They ship most of it to China.
EcoSort has recently notified Lane Apex that it will no longer accept its recyclables, which have amounted to about 425 tons every year. They’re too contaminated.
Lane Apex has found another company that will accept shipments, at least temporarily. It has nowhere to store more than a few days’ collections. And it certainly doesn’t want to spend money collecting recyclables only to take them to a landfill.
So far, landfilling isn’t even a viable option. It would require special state authorization, and the state has been encouraging recycling to save landfill space.
In addition, the MRFs have slowed their conveyor belts to enable more thorough sorting and cleaner output. Portland’s facility, for example, processes five tons less recyclables per hour than it did before the Chinese action. It is also trying to add shifts and add new employees. But unemployment is low, and fewer people respond to openings.
Camden, South Carolina
MRFs don’t need news from China to protest recycling contamination.
Sonoco Recycling operates MRFs in more than one hundred American cities from coast to coast. Last year, its facility in Camden, South Carolina has announced a crackdown on contaminated loads of recyclables.
It will charge a fee of $250 per load with excessive contamination. It will also charge a tipping fee for contaminants that must go to the landfill. Eventually these fees could add up to $40,000 per year in expenses to the city.
Members of the city council wondered if the city had any other alternative to dealing with Sonoco. They apparently don’t realize that contamination causes the same problems for any MRF, no matter who operates it.
They expressed particular dismay that the list includes plastic bags. Camden’s groceries and other stores don’t take them back. Avoiding Sonoco’s fees and penalties will require negotiation with grocery stores. They will have to provide plastic bag recycling.
Camden’s city manager also announced a vigorous public education campaign. The city intends to pass the penalties on to households that don’t sort properly.
Camden offers households two sizes of recycle bins, blue for the larger and green for the smaller. When a citizen’s recycling bin consistently contains prohibited materials, the city will send two written warnings.
A third warning to a household with a blue bin will result in receiving the green bin instead, in order to make it easier for city crews to inspect it. A third warning in the case of a green bin will result in its removal.
As a consequence, that household will not be able to participate in recycling at all.
Solving contaminated recycling problems
If the public doesn’t get its act together and sort recyclables more intelligently, companies from haulers up to exporters will face bad choices. They can raise rates, withhold raises from employees, or defer maintenance and capital improvements.
The recycling industry needs more than simply eliminating consumers’ careless recycling, however.
A healthy recycling industry requires more companies that make new things from recyclables. Manufacturing with sorted recyclables cuts the need to export anything.
But responsibility for eliminating recycling contamination starts with households.
In fact, careless recycling has triggered China’s refusal to be our dumping ground.
Source separation produces the cleanest recycling product to sell to manufacturers. In the US, it also has a low participation rate. We find single-stream recycling much more convenient. But still too inconvenient to do carefully. Too many people blithely put too many wrong items in their recycling containers
I expect more MRFs will insist on less-contaminated recycling from municipalities. And as a result, municipalities will have to make their citizens pay a hefty fee for abusing the system with improper recycling.
Recycling pinch: Tougher anti-contaminant standards for waste plastics, paper in China causing backups in Oregon, Lane County / Christian Hill, The Register Guard. October 1, 2017. Link no longer works as of 9/2020.]
Sonoco charging Camden for ‘contaminated recycling material’ / Martin L. Cahn, [Camden, S.C.] Chronicle-Independent. September 29, 2017. Link no longer works as of 4/20/19
Utility launches new campaign to recycle right / Suzanne Michaels, Las Cruces [New Mexico] Sun-News. September 30, 2017.
Recycling container. Some rights reserved by City of St. Petersburgr
Landfill. Some rights reserved by Dhscommtech
Material recovery facility. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Food waste. Some rights reserved by Nick Saltmarsh.
Recycling bales. Some rights reserved by Nick Saltmarsh.
Trash and recycling truck. Some rights reserved by fairfaxcounty
Recycling at grocery store. My photo.
Dead batteries. Some rights reserved by JohnSeb. Link to Flickr no longer works.