Chang­ing times cre­ate big trou­ble for re­cy­cling

Help­ing en­vi­ron­ment is getting costly for cities

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Chris Wood­yard

As millions of hol­i­day de­liv­er­ies head to doorsteps around the coun­try, it’s be­com­ing clear that some of this year’s gift boxes may not nec­es­sar­ily be­come next year’s gift boxes.

This hol­i­day sea­son col­lides with what has be­come known as the great re­cy­cling cri­sis. Ear­lier this year, China, which for years has been Amer­ica’s go-to na­tion for pro­cess­ing re­cy­clables into new boxes, started re­ject­ing all but the clean­est, purest loads.

China’s de­ci­sion left re­cy­clers with­out a mar­ket, caus­ing re­cy­clables to pile up and prices to plum­met. Their value fell by about half from pre-cri­sis lev­els, mak­ing it much more ex­pen­sive to re­cy­cle glass, plas­tic and pa­per, ac­cord­ing to Waste Man­age­ment, the trash-haul­ing gi­ant that bills it­self as the na­tion’s largest res­i­den­tial re­cy­cler.

“The eco­nomics aren’t in our fa­vor any­more,” said Bran­don Wright, spokesman for the Na­tional Waste and Re­cy­cling As­so­ci­a­tion.

The shift doesn’t bode well for the fu­ture of re­cy­cling. Af­ter years of con­di­tion­ing Amer­i­cans to throw all their re­us­able con­tain­ers and pa­per in bins, cities across the U.S. are im­pos­ing higher col­lec­tion fees, elim­i­nat­ing items they are will­ing to pick up, or in a few cases, weigh­ing whether to cur­tail re­cy­cling al­to­gether.

It isn’t good news for the en­vi­ron­ment. Roughly 35 per­cent of the na­tion’s to­tal waste is di­verted to re­cy­cling from the over­all solid waste stream. That’s millions of tons of ma­te­ri­als that can be

reused rather than hav­ing to use vir­gin ma­te­ri­als. It also saves on the en­ergy and ef­fort re­quired to make new items from scratch.

At hol­i­day time, re­cy­cling bins can over­flow with moun­tains of left­over pack­ag­ing. UPS fore­casts its crews will de­liver 800 mil­lion pack­ages this sea­son, up from 762 mil­lion at the same time last year. Add 400 mil­lion or so more for FedEx if its to­tal matches last year’s vol­ume.

The on­line re­tail­ing rev­o­lu­tion and home de­liv­ery have forced big changes in re­cy­cling. More card­board boxes now go to homes rather than busi­nesses, com­pli­cat­ing pickup.

In Sacra­mento County, Cal­i­for­nia, mixed pa­per was worth $85 to $95 a ton to re­cy­clers a year ago. Lately, it’s been fetch­ing $6.50 to $8.50. Lesser qual­ity plas­tics were worth $45 a ton. Now it costs $35 to get it re­cy­cled. Card­board prices fell, too.

Waste Man­age­ment, which has about 100 U.S. re­cy­cling pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties, says the cost of pro­cess­ing re­cy­clables was once $85 a ton. Now the sorted loads col­lec­tively only bring in about $65 a ton. In­stead of re­ceiv­ing a check for their re­cy­clables, cities are now be­ing asked to pay to have them taken away, said Brent Bell, the com­pany’s vice pres­i­dent of re­cy­cling.

His com­pany has found other mar­kets for re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als, but they are in In­dia and other South Asian na­tions where it can cost more to ship.

The prob­lem, in large mea­sure, sur­rounds how Amer­i­cans re­cy­cle. City dwellers love the con­ve­nience of pil­ing ev­ery­thing into a sin­gle bin. But the mix­ing cre­ates sort­ing is­sues later. Ama­zon boxes are en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and com­pletely re­cy­clable, but not if they be­come sat­u­rated with bat­tery acid or Thanks­giv­ing turkey gravy. Pa­per is fine to re­cy­cle, but not if it’s a grease-smeared pizza box.

Bins are also con­tam­i­nated with junk that shouldn’t be there at all, like spent gar­den hoses, bro­ken-down lawn chairs, dead car bat­ter­ies or the in­dus­try’s top buga­boo, plas­tic gro­cery bags. Waste Man­age­ment said the over­all con­tam­i­na­tion rate of re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als is about 25 per­cent.

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