“One’s trash is another’s treasure” is a common phrase to describe taking something useless and making it beneficial. Governmental recycling programs nationwide have embodied the phrase, converting waste product into reusable materials for decades as “reduce, reuse, recycle” has become a more prominent mantra in America. They’ve been able to make a bit of profit at it too, a win-win scenario.
Yet recently, decisions across the world and across the street have impacted the ability for governments, especially local municipalities, to reap any sort of benefit from their recycling programs. That’s particularly true for curbside recycling where the onus falls on government to either collect, haul and sort the refuse, or to find a contractor who will at a reasonable price.
One of the largest factors in the downturn has been a domino-like impact from new Chinese regulations on the amount of contamination they are willing to accept in the recycling loads that are sent overseas to them from American facilities (contamination, in this case, means any unrecyclable material, but also recyclable materials that are grouped incorrectly, like paper mixed in with cardboard, or certain types of plastics). Before the regulations went into effect in September 2017, scraps and waste products were the sixth largest American export to China. The main reason, from China’s perspective, to start paring down their accepted materials was that too much of it became useless. Ever since the concept of single-stream recycling was introduced (replacing dual-stream), loads of supposedly recyclable materials became too polluted with non-recyclable plastics and other materials, rendering the operation no longer as financially lucrative to the Chinese or other countries willing to import American waste and repurpose it.
“China is becoming much more stringent about the requirements in terms of contamination,” Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management Director Barbara Eckstrom said. “What they used to accept, which was five percent contamination, whether that’s garbage or material people think is recyclable but isn’t actually, they started to make a to-do about that. They went to 0.5 percent.”
China doubled down on that 2017 decision by expanding the the new restrictions earlier this year, despite the fact that several countries were still struggling to adapt to the initial set of new rules. Now, Eckstrom said the introduction of single-stream recycling during the last 20 years (eight years ago in Tompkins County) has caused an influx of contaminants, even though she and the department have felt successful in getting the word out to the community about what’s recyclable, what’s trash, and what’s anything else.
“It’s been a much better situation in Tompkins County, we do a lot of education,” Eckstrom said. “But still problematic. We have about five percent contamination rate.”
In Tompkins County, residential waste materials are sent to a processing facility in Ontario County by Casella Recycling to be sorted, in the hopes of cutting down on contamination possibilities. Of course, with the new contamination standards a closer processing eye was needed, and with that comes a higher price tag for the county to still use a third-party company to sort through the materials.
Tompkins County residents will see the impact the most through a $3 increase on their annual tax bill, as the fee proposal goes from $55 to $58. In total, that will garner about $150,000 for the recycling department, helping to bridge the financial loss that will additionally (hopefully) be filled in by grants and financial rewards.
“There’s issues where markets don’t exist for certain materials, and there’s issues where it’s costing us more money and we’re losing a lot of revenue,” Eckstrom said, a result of prices plummeting for recyclable materials. “That’s why my budget is being impacted. I’ve got a situation where this year, we’re anticipating having a $400,000 loss. In the past, we were typically making $750,000, now we’re making $350,000.”
That loss looms large, even with the slight annual increase in curbside collection fee. Between the annual $500,000 increase in collection costs and the $400,000 loss in annual revenue from recycling sales, it’s a $900,000 loss.
“I recognized we really need to talk about what we’re currently accepting, what isn’t acceptable and go through the hard process of changing what’s going into the bins, both residential and commercial,” Eckstrom said. “The whole goal is to Clean the Stream.”
Clean the Stream is the operative campaign, and the end goal, the recycling industry is using to educate and enlighten residents and citizens. The hope is in 18-24 months, assuming the Clean the Stream campaign is successful in molding a new approach and a heightened awareness to recycling needs, prices will stabilize and even potentially begin to rise again, but it will absolutely take time to take effect.
As far as outreach and education, the department is staging what might be called an intervention, using media platforms and issuing new materials to guide people on what is and isn’t acceptable recycling fodder. That includes brochures that tout certain changes, like never putting rigid plastics out for curbside recycling (those can be taken separately to the Recycling and Solid Waste Center), or only putting out plastics labeled #1, #2 or #5 (all it takes is a glance around the surface to know). It’s little steps, but there’s a chance they’ll make a profound difference.
Certain misconceptions among the public have contributed to the contamination and the need for more education now. Plastic bags, for instance, have never been accepted by the curbside recycling program, even though they are often included by residents. But since there’s almost nobody willing to pay for plastic bags, and they have to be sent to a different facility for processing and separation, they represent a significant money drain for recycling departments.
“When in doubt, leave it out,” Eckstrom said. “Because then it can contaminate, and the more we all are guilty of this, the more the materials stink.”
The tricky part of the whole situation is that it comes down to choices that the Tompkins County Waste Management and Recycling department can’t control. The burden is almost squarely on residents, normal citizens who may have been recycling the wrong materials for years, entirely on accident, and aren’t willing or ready to learn what needs to be done now.
“Maybe there’ll be a day when these things will return, but not for some time, and at this point it’s just costing money and we’re losing revenue for the process,” Eckstrom said. “The thing is, we all have a responsibility now. Even I do, when I look at what I put in the bin. It’s tempting, you know, but we all have to do it right.”
There is hope for a broader, perhaps more policy-based correction to the issue, though those are maybe even more difficult to rely on than changing public behavior at a consumer level. Eckstrom did mention one other way to think about the current recycling environment is to refocus on the need for product stewardship, or extended producer responsibility. That’s a method used in Canada that shifts the burden of paying for processing from governments onto manufacturers, thus incentivizing companies to manufacture their products using as much recyclable materials as possible to reduce their processing costs. By the same token, it also takes that cost off the direct plate of taxpayers, as opposed to when governments are charged with that duty and those costs.
“If we move more and more toward recyclability by design, then more will be acceptable in the bins, and less will go in by mistake,” Eckstrom said.
There’s more than one reason to hope that the market returns. The recycling department has a processing contract with Casella that is still in place for two more years, but after that it will have to be renegotiated. Eckstrom, who praised Casella’s work with the county effusively, said they expect that after the 10-year contract expires there will be a natural price increase, as is normal in such a relationship. How high the price goes, though, probably relies on how healthy the market is at that time, and how much money Casella is able to make off selling the processed materials. If they’re still taking a hit, the contract will likely be much more expensive than otherwise, and the resounding impact on taxpayers will probably increase in kind.
There have been highs and lows during Eckstrom’s tenure, but she said this is the lowest and most prolonged. There’s still light at the end of the tunnel, but it essentially comes down to two factors: whether the Waste Management division can spread the message effectively enough, and whether residents around Tompkins County are ready to adjust their recycling behavior to fall in line. Otherwise, it seems inevitable prices for curbside recycling programs will rise despite the best efforts of Eckstrom and her team.
“I’ve been here for 30 years, we’ve been recycling for 25, I’ve seen all kinds of market conditions,” Eckstrom said. “I would say this is the worst and the longest [lasting] situation [...] The thing here is, do a good job, please, so that we can keep our fees stable.”