Recycling in Summit County and across the country keeps getting harder and more expensive
American consumers throw tens of millions of items into the recycling stream every year. For decades, an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude has prevailed, with most of us assuming that once something is chucked into the green or blue bins with the “chasing arrows” symbol on them, the item will wind up in the “right place.”
For most of that time, the right place was China. Until 2018, the Red Dragon’s industry consumed half the world’s recyclables to remake into consumer products. But after getting fed up with contaminated, disorganized and unsorted recyclables from the rest of the world polluting its own country, China closed the floodgates.
“On average, 15% to 20% of recyclables that go in the stream are contaminated,” Summit County Resource Allocation Park director Aaron Byrne told Summit County’s commissioners during their regular work session Tuesday morning. “Since last year, China is only accepting a contamination rate of half a percent.”
Byrne was explaining to the county commissioners how the downstream effects of China’s decision were creating rapid changes in the recycling industry. The industry has never been lucrative, and once the largest market for recyclables all but shut down, commodity prices on processing items like plastic and cardboard have been plummeting month after month since last January.
“The most dramatic change has been single-stream recycling,” Byrne told the Summit Daily. “At one point in 2017, we were actually earning $29 a ton. Today we have to pay $38 a ton just to process that same material. It’s almost a swing of $70 a ton from positive to negative. That’s been a huge expense increase to us.”
Combined with increasing freight costs, the recycling market has become a black hole for the budgets of many towns and counties. For some, it’s become too much to bear.
Since last year, towns and counties from Oregon to Maine have shuttered their recycling programs. The city of Philadelphia has resorted to burning hundreds of tons of contaminated recyclables a day — or half of what Philly citizens have been throwing into recycling bins — for energy.
Summit County, already behind the curve of the growing problem, approved Ballot Initiative 1A last year, which earmarked $1.7 million a year for funding existing and new recycling and diversion programs.
But Byrne admitted to the commissioners that, whereas it was estimated that $500,000 would be needed to fund existing programs, the market changes meant that’s now up to $750,000 a year.
That is $250,000 less to fund new facilities and programs, such as a new convenience and drop-off facility at the entrance to the SCRAP to make it easier for residents to drop off heavy recyclables such as appliances.
While Byrne and county public works manager Tom Gosiorowski said they did not anticipate needing to ask voters for more money, they do ask residents to help with the recycling market woes by doing their part by carefully reading recycling instructions before throwing something in.
The county, for example, does not accept glass in single-stream recycling. Pizza boxes are also a big nuisance, as the grease and food particles render them impossible to recycle. Single-use plastics and packaging are a global scourge, but they’re also difficult to recycle in the county. And with a down cardboard market, the countless shipping boxes from companies like Amazon become a burden. And, finally, when it comes to containers — like cans, jugs and bottles — to wash them out and dispose of unrecyclable items like caps and tops before putting them into recycling.
Given the limited capacity in the county and worth of recyclables, Gosiorowski also encouraged residents to put more emphasis on the first two “Rs” in “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”
“The big message is to ask everybody to recycle everything they can, but try and reduce their usage of materials as well,” Gosiorowski said.
And while the economic issues are hurting his industry, Byrne looked at the situation as a big opportunity to reform it.
“I think that the big thing for us in this community and this industry is starting to recognize that this is the best thing China could have done; to push back so we’re not shipping trash overseas,” Byrne said. “It allows the recycling industry to focus on the problem at hand and figure it out. We’ll be so much stronger as an industry going forward, and that’ll present a lot of great opportunities for the state to look into creating more end uses for recyclables and recycling markets.”
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