Recyclables have started piling up in Recology’s waste management facility in Santa Rosa ever since China began enforcing new restrictions on foreign garbage imports as part of an initiative to fight pollution.
Recology, founded nearly a century ago in San Francisco, became the premier waste hauler for much of West Marin in December, just weeks before China’s new restrictions went into effect. The move has many companies reeling to find alternative places to ship materials, and Recology is no exception.
According to Fred Stemmler, general manager for Recology’s facilities in Marin and Sonoma Counties, the company has been forced to slow down its sorting process and hire more employees to manually sift through the materials it collects, ensuring a higher percentage of garbage is pulled out and sent to landfills.
The company has historically shipped about 60 percent of its recyclables to China, where those goods are processed and resold. The other 40 percent is processed domestically or in other countries.
Mr. Stemmler said those figures are typical for waste management companies across the United States.
But China’s new rules, which went into effect Jan. 1, ban a variety of solid waste products from entering the country. They also set higher standards for the level of impurity that is acceptable in shipments of foreign recycling. Processing facilities in China previously accepted loads of recycling that contain up to 5 percent of non-recyclable materials. Now, those facilities only accept loads that contain a half-percent or less of impurities.
As a result, the cost of sorting recycling has skyrocketed, Mr. Stemmler said. Recology has added a second sorting shift at some of its processing facilities and hired extra staff to work those hours.
This has led to the value of many recycled goods dropping precipitously, as the supply of those materials far outweighs the infrastructure in place to process them in countries other than China. In March 2017, Recology could sell a ton of mixed paper for about $100. Today, the company is struggling to sell the same amount for $5.
In some cases, Recology can’t find processing facilities that will accept loads of recyclables at all, no matter how free of contaminants they are, which has led to pile-ups at its sorting plants, including in Santa Rosa, where West Marin’s recycling is hauled.
Celia Furber, a manager for Recology’s zero waste initiative in Marin and Sonoma, said recycling is still being processed; it’s just staying longer at the sorting facilities.
The company isn’t whisking recyclable materials away into landfills, she said: “We’re not actually legally allowed to put it in landfills. We take that very seriously.”
Nor is Ms. Furber too concerned that accumulated recyclables could outgrow the amount of space Recology has available.
“We can partner and work with other facilities to take some of our recyclable material if we’re super backlogged,” she said.
But Recology and other waste management companies are exploring alternatives to shipping recyclables now that China has tightened its rules. According to Mr. Stemmler, those options include shipping to processing facilities in Indonesia, Vietnam, India and Korea. But facilities in those countries aren’t equipped to keep up with the demand, he said. China is the only country with the infrastructure in place to process large quantities.
“Everybody is talking about plan B, C and D, but we don’t know what any of those are yet,” he said. “Some are talking about the possibility of expanding domestic processing. They’re asking where we can potentially process our materials that are destined for international markets right now. That isn’t an overnight solution, but it may actually be an opportunity.”
Mr. Stemmler also emphasized that the industry is accustomed to fluctuations in the prices of recyclable materials. Though the economy changes throughout the years, waste management services always remain a necessity, he said.
“If waste collection services were to come and go depending on the highs and lows of an economy, you’d have trash sitting curbside for long periods of time, and that would be a health hazard,” he said.
Companies rely on the variety of services they provide—which include curbside collection, hauling to landfills, composting and recycling—for financial success, so that if one piece of the puzzle falls out, the rest is still supported.
Still, the recent drop in value of recyclable materials is unprecedented.
“We are in a bit of uncharted territory now, with the values of some of these commodities as low as they are,” Mr. Stemmler said. “I’m optimistic—at least hopeful—that we’re going to see some changes in the values of these things.”
What goes where?
Inside Recology’s waste management facility in Santa Rosa, Mr. Stemmler watches another garden hose run through the sorting line. As he describes the improper materials he sees coming out of recycling piles, his frustration is evident.
“It has a significant negative impact when people do things like that,” he said. “If you’re not sure if something is recyclable, set it aside and wait until you can do the research.”
Many customers are what Mr. Stemmler calls “wishful recyclers”—throwing items into the blue bin even when they’re not sure those materials are recyclable in hopes they will be processed and reused. But if an item isn’t recyclable, like a garden hose, it’s going to the landfill.
Wishful recycling impedes Recology’s effort to efficiently and effectively sort materials, and Recology representatives say West Marin residents can make a difference by educating themselves about what is recyclable. Materials like glass, metal, plastic, paper and cardboard are recyclable, but any of these items that contain food particles or other contaminants aren’t.
Flimsy plastic, including bags, wrappers and film, isn’t recyclable in West Marin; it belongs in the trash. This includes bags bearing the recyclable label—an “unregulated designation,” Mr. Stemmler said.
Hard plastic, on the other hand, is recyclable. Plastic bottles, containers, laundry detergent bottles and lids can be placed in the blue bin, but they should be rinsed first. Caps can be left on bottles.
Ms. Furber recommends using dirty dish water to rinse out plastic containers in order to save water. Recology also warns that loads of recycling placed in plastic garbage bags won’t make it to the sorting line because of the dangers associated with employees ripping open opaque bags.
Metals can be recycled as long as they don’t contain any liquids or food. Aluminum and tin cans belong in the blue bin, along with caps and lids from bottles and jars. Paint and spray cans must be empty or dry. Aluminum foil is recyclable, and Recology asks customers to crumple it into balls. But some materials that contain metal don’t belong in the recycling, including batteries and other electronics, coat hangers and scrap metal.
Paper bags, cardboard, cereal boxes, egg cartons, waxy paper juice or milk cartons and newspapers can all be placed in blue bins. Shredded or soiled paper, can’t be recycled, and neither can waxed cardboard.
• Other non-recyclables
Recology finds a long list of non-recyclable items in customers’ blue bins, including clothing, linens, rags, styrofoam, wood, light bulbs, glass mirrors, windows, ceramic dishware and yard trimmings.
Items that can be placed in green bins include food scraps, food-soiled paper, plants, shredded paper, wood, hair and fur. Meat, bones, greasy pizza boxes, paper take-out food containers, coffee filters, tea bags, dairy, and yard trimmings are all compostable. Items that don’t belong in the compost include cat litter and animal feces, cooking oil, liquids and plastics labeled “biodegradable” or “compostable.”
Mixing trash and recycling
With both Recology and its predecessor, some West Marin customers have expressed frustration that garbage and recycling gets mixed in the smaller, single-compartment trucks that frequent narrow rural roads. According to Mr. Stemmler, that has in fact been happening.
Larger, split-body trucks can collect both bins on a single run, but a shortage of smaller vehicles has meant that, in some cases, drivers are throwing all materials together. “And if it's going into one chamber, it's going to the landfill,” Mr. Stemmler said, adding that Recology does not “condone, allow or promote” such practice.
The company just purchased five small trucks that will allow drivers to make two sweeps, one for garbage and one for recycling.
Mr. Stemmler encouraged anyone who sees materials collected together to report it to customer service. He also said ride-along audits will soon take place along routes, and that trucks might soon be clearly labeled according to their function.