Local recycling programs in peril thanks to poor sorting and China

By Adam Strunk 

Don’t want higher trash rates? Do a better job of recycling.

That’s the reality facing Newton and the county as county supplier Waste Connections has threatened to renegotiate its contract and increase the cost of taking recycling by 400 percent, due to its insistence that local recycling is contaminated with trash.
“This is coming from Waste Connections,” City Public Information Officer Erin McDaniel said of a discussed cost increase of $18 per ton to more than $100. “They have told us that we need to improve the quality of the recyclables moving in. They’ve told us we’ve got a huge percentage of contamination in our recycling.”

The county currently holds a contract until 2022 with Waste Connections to haul away all recycling produced in the county. The contract stipulates that the recycling the county produces must be acceptable to the hauler.

Waste Connections says its not, with loads containing between 20-25 percent trash.
“They want to continue to honor the contract with Harvey County and continue to see recycling happen, but at the same time, they’re saying we need less contamination and we likely need more money.”

The contract does include schedule increases on recycling costs. However, the contract maxes out at $20. Waste Connections did not return a request for comment about this story.

A tough decision

The county has recycled since 1990 and throughout that history it has saved residents money, as well as space at landfills.
Today, the county and in turn, cities, pay $33 a ton to haul off refuse. Recycling comes in at $15 or 45 percent cheaper a ton.
McDaniel said if recycling rates increase above the cost of refuse, eventually recycling will no longer be a feasible service for the city to offer.
“We’d have to make a tough decision and we may see the end of recycling in Newton,” she said.

McDaniel said about one third of Newton’s discarded items end up classified as recycling products.

Using those numbers, the average cost per ton would increase by 19 percent from $27.72 to $33.

In a scenario without recycling, unless the city would choose to eat the loss, refuse rates would likely reflect such increase on monthly utility bills for residents.

A loss would also increase the wear and tear on county vehicles used at the transfer station to haul up to Reno County, as well as increase the need for staff time, according to Harvey County Administrator Anthony Swartzendruber.
Such a reality would also leave many residents who wish to recycle without a place to easily get rid of them.

China doesn’t want our trash

Across the area and country local recycling programs have disappeared or are at risk of disappearing. The blame? Stricter Chinese regulations and a crashed U.S. recycling market.

In recent years, the Chinese government, for decades one of the main destinations for exported U.S. recycling, has tightened regulations on what recycling items they accept.

They will no longer accept certain plastics and require increasingly pure recycling for those things they do accept. Eventually, the country will require some recycling imports to be 99.5 percent refuse free.

The tighter Chinese regulations make it difficult for companies to export American recyclables, which decreases the demand and creating a glut in the U.S. In turn, U.S. prices have dropped and for-profit recyclers have been left looking for ways of turning a profit and to make recycling cleaner, in order to be able to export it.
“Waste Connection tells us there are more centers trying to come online, but because of loss of demand from the market, there’s too much material in U.S.,” Swartzendruber said.

These changes have resulted in the losses of many local recycling programs.

The City of El Dorado recently nixed its program as it faced increasing prices to provide recycling.

El Dorado City Manager David Dillner said the city looked for companies to haul off recycling and prices increased over the summer from 55 to 75 dollars.

“We were told by the end of September, it would be $95 a ton,” he said, noting that haulers were asking for El Dorado’s recycling to be cleaner, as well.

He said eventually, El Dorado decided that it would not continue to increase rates for residents to offset the service.
The big decision making element of this was the cost was increasing rather significantly,” he said.

He noted that El Dorado had recycled for 25 years as a way to save room at the area landfill.

According to Dillner, the city of Augusta would also soon nix its recycling program and soon, there would be no municipal recycling programs in Butler County.

Dillner said El Dorado had provided single stream recycling. Newton also provides that form of service, something that McDaniel thought might add to contamination levels in the recycling.
In the past, when Newton had multiple streams, people had to sort their recycling, taking more time and possibly more consideration.
Now, people are able to throw everything and anything in the recycling.

McDaniel called it “Wish Cycling” and said, while intentions may be good, it does more harm than good.

“People think it’s plastic so it’s recyclable,” She said.
The city has been monitoring its recycling after Waste Connections complained and noticed all sorts of items that should not be in the trash, such as garden hoses, toasters and coolers.

“Some of these things have recycling symbols on them. It’s misleading, because yeah, that item might be recyclable somewhere, but it might not be one of the items Waste Connections accepts.”

Harvey County Public Information Officer Kyle McCaskey also provided a list of some other unacceptable items the county regularly found at its sorting facility, which prompted Waste Connection complaints.
“They’re talking about major contaminates, plastic bags, garden hoses, pool noodles, radiators, motor oil,” he said.

The goal of 10 percent

According to Swartzendruber, the county and cities have 45 days to clean up their recycling and gave the county a 10 percent contamination range to shoot for.

“The county is waiting for some feedback from the cities and opinions on whether or not this is a solvable problem on their perspective,” he said.
Swartzendruber said if the contract has to be renegotiated, the cost of recycling would likely increase.

He said if that was the case, it would be up to the county commission to decide what to do. Currently, the county has a resolution requiring recycling. Local bodies such as Newton have ordinances requiring recycling.
“At this point the county commission hasn’t discussed alternatives,” he said.

Swartzendruber didn’t think the county running its sorting center, as it had done in the past, was currently feasible.

“That equipment hasn’t run in several years,” he said. “There have been some pieces of it at previous times that have been sold.”

He also noted that running a facility would also come with costs to the county, something that again would eventually be passed off on the consumer.

“You’d still have to find a way to sell your material,” he said. “We’d still have to find someone to get rid of it”

He did note that recycling was a grass roots initiative and if it should go away at a larger level, he thought people would still find ways.
“Recycling came about through citizen initiatives,” he said, adding that some communities, such as North Newton, might still find ways of offering the service.
North Newton contracts with South Central Recycling, which has found alternative methods for storing some of the recyclables it takes in. For the record, the company, which has residents sort all their recycling, was the only one that Waste Connections said had non-contaminated recycling in its July study.

“So, we’ve tried to monitor our loads and taken a bunch of photos of contamination that we’re seeing,” McDaniel said. “Waste Connections told us if we don’t improve our contamination level, we’re likely to see some huge increases in cost.”