Editor’s note: In Monday’s Times Leader we’ll take a look at what happens to recycling when it’s too contaminated to be utilized on the market, and where it ends up.
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Many residents in Dorrance Township have made recycling part of their weekend routine.
Every Saturday, vehicles file into the township building as workers diligently empty bins and bags into dumpsters that accept everything from cardboard to tin cans.
But sometimes, the workers receive an unpleasant surprise.
Recently, one of the workers lifted a bag full of aluminum cans from a vehicle and was doused with stale beer. Sometimes it’s mounds of coffee grounds, sloppy food waste or even household garbage that spills.
While it creates a messy situation for township workers, those instances also reveal an underlying problem that is threatening the viability of recycling programs.
While recycling allows us to do our part to keep the Earth clean, it can devolve into a dirty situation when garbage and non-recyclables are mixed in with plastic, aluminum, paper and glass.
“Recycling is on its way out if people don’t start respecting it,” said Dorrance Township secretary Pat Davis.
In Luzerne County, 52 of the 76 municipalities have recycling programs. Many of them utilize single-stream recycling — a system where all items are co-mingled and sorted later at specialized facilities. The approach is supposed to make recycling easier for residents, but it can be abused.
As more garbage is mixed in with single-stream recycling, and more of the material isn’t rinsed cleaned by residents, the amount of contamination increases. If the rate is too high, loads of recyclables can end up in the very place they were destined to avoid — the landfill.
A growing problem
And it’s no coincidence that ever since single-stream was adopted by towns, the amount of contamination increased.
“I think single-stream has made it easier for people to throw contaminants in with recycling,” said Jerry Cifor, director of County Waste, a waste and recycling hauler that serves Pennsylvania and Virginia. “We get a lot of plastic bags, garden hoses, Styrofoam and even Christmas tree lights after December. It makes it a lot more expensive to process material.”
If it makes it to that point.
Cifor said the volume of waste deposited in landfills spiked in 2018, and he suspects more contamination issues are forcing recycling to be dumped with garbage.
Beth DeNardi, recycling coordinator for Luzerne County, said it’s likely that loads of recycling considered contaminated do end up in a landfill.
“Is it happening? Probably,” she said. “If it’s not clean, it’s not going to sell.”
According to DeNardi, when the majority of municipalities in the county switched to single-stream recycling, rates increased, followed by rising percentages of contamination. While the county has stayed well above the 35 percent recycling rate requested by the state, 2017 marked the first time the rate dropped below 50 percent (49 percent) in years.
In 2016, DeNardi said Luzerne County municipalities reported 108,175 tons of recycling collected. In 2017, that figure dropped to 96,000 tons, and that decline is attributable, in part, to higher rates of contamination.
It wasn’t that long ago when recyclers had more leeway when it came to contamination. When China was the biggest buyer of U.S. recycling, there was a demand for the material and a profit to be made. Cifor said China was taking as much as 50 percent of recycling produced in the U.S., but in August 2017 they abruptly stopped.
“We lost 50 percent of the market overnight,” he said. “The domestic mills got inundated and the prices plummeted. Now, the supply is way in excess of the demand.”
When the recycling business was booming financially — thanks to China supplying the demand — it allowed municipalities to be paid by haulers for their recycling.
Davis said before Dorrance Township switched to single stream in 2013, they were paying to have recycling dumpsters hauled away. When the switch was made to single-stream in 2013, the township received revenue for its recycling, but that changed in July 2018, she said, when the market declined and contamination became a bigger issue. Last year, Dorrance Township paid as much as $250 to have each recycling dumpster hauled away by Northeast Cartage.
“It went from getting paid for it to us paying to have it hauled away because the material wasn’t being bought, and that’s because (haulers) aren’t getting anything for it because it’s contaminated,” Davis said.
And the contamination has gotten worse.
In Dorrance, 5.86 percent of all recycling collected in 2013 was considered waste material. In 2017, that percentage rose to more than 14.
But an emphasis on cleaning recyclables and limiting waste is only half the battle.
The lack of an international market is a dilemma that has some recyclers questioning the future of the business.
Frank Nockley Jr., a partner in Northeast Cartage, said China can reject loads if it has more than .5 percent contamination, but now the country isn’t taking any recycling at all.
When a load was rejected by China due to contamination, it forced recyclers to scramble to find another market. Sometimes the loads end up in Vietnam or India, Nockley said, but by then additional shipping costs have been incurred.
“It’s risky and there’s no money in it,” he said. “This is a nationwide issue and it’s an atrocity because recycling is the morally right thing to do.”
So what can be done?
DeNardi is optimistic that recycling markets will come back and things will change for the better. But that can only happen, she said, if residents do their part.
That means washing out jars, jugs and cans and following the guidelines of what recyclables are accepted in their municipality. The out-of sight, out-of-mind approach doesn’t cut it, she said.
If things don’t turn around, the alternative could be costly.
“What I heard from haulers is they’re going to warn people about the contamination rate and, if it continues, they’re not going to pick it up,” DeNardi said. “Education needs to come back. People need to get back into the routine of cleaning their recycling.”
Cifor agreed that cleanliness is key, but if residential recycling is going to be fixed, something else needs to happen while the market is floundering.
“Eliminate current recyclables that have a negative value. That would be glass (which breaks and can contaminate loads) and plastics nos. 3-7,” he said, referencing thinner plastics that require additional processing to sort.
“The elimination of these two classes of recyclables would make recycling viable overnight,” he explained.
Even then, the problem is that glass represents 20-25 percent of the weight of the total recyclables, he added. Eliminating that weight would reduce the overall tonnage that municipalities can report to the state for possible reimbursement, Cifor added.