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Don't be a “Wishful Recycler”

The Price Tag of Recycling Wrong

The U.S. generates a lot of recycling – tens of millions of tons a year, in fact. China, the largest importer, has eagerly purchased our country’s recyclables for more than 20 years to fuel its manufacturing growth. However, in January 2018, that all changed. China closed its doors to our recyclables, along with others from around the world. Why? Contamination. Contamination occurs when garbage, food waste or the wrong recyclable items are put into the recycling cart. When this happens, items that were considered “diverted” from landfills end up there anyway — incurring huge costs, damages and lost revenue along the way.

China’s “National Sword” policy bans mixed grade materials like paper and plastics along with all foreign commodities that do not meet its stringent 0.50 percent contamination threshold. In a single decisive action, China has made recycling contamination an international crisis. If contamination isn’t caught when it’s processed on the line, recyclables are turned away by international buyers — leaving the U.S. with the burden of these unsold items.

“Once the material gets to their port and gets inspected, if there is contamination, you’re going to have to turn that boat around and come back. And your costs have just exploded,” said Fred Stemmler, general manager of Recology Sonoma Marin. “Then you have to decide whether or not it’s worth it to reprocess and send it back.”

Contamination also racks up extra costs at local processing facilities, putting pressure on the municipalities that protect the environment and communities from waste.

“The costs are going up and the revenues are going down,” said Roger Williams, chief financial officer for Marin Sanitary Service (MSS). “That puts the local hauler in a very challenging position. And with the state mandating levels of recycling, if you don’t hit certain thresholds, they will fi ne the local jurisdictions.”

Increased processing costs and fines to local jurisdictions could ultimately be borne by the ratepayer. Recycling right not only saves the environment, it saves money.

Items you put into your recycling cart are processed at facilities specially designed to separate and bale materials that are like one another. When contaminants are present, sanitation workers have to remove these nonrecyclable items from the stream by hand. The more contaminated material in a load, the slower the process. Major contamination can also cause damage to equipment, or shut down the process altogether.

“Every time you have a shutdown, items are no longer moving on the line,” said Stemmler. “You have 40 people standing around and nothing to sort.”

MSS, one of Marin County’s five haulers, decided early on to implement a dual stream recycling program to reduce these cost risks. Unlike a single stream, a dual stream program keeps paper items separate from bottles and cans. This keeps common contaminants like glass and food out of the paper recyclables. For years, the contamination rates at the Marin Recycling Center, MSS’s processing facility, were less than 1 percent. However, for the past couple of years, the contamination rates have approached 10 percent.

“Ten percent contamination is the limit for certified recycling centers in California,” said Kimberly Scheibly, director of compliance and customer relations at MSS. “Now the stakes are even higher with China’s restrictions. That is why it is so important to recycle right the first time.”

Some haulers are able to charge for contamination in recycling carts, to cover sorting items and cleaning recyclables, but others cannot. All haulers, however, are contractually obligated to collect recycling no matter how contaminated it may be. “Even if we can charge for contamination, it doesn’t solve the problem,” Williams said. “We really do depend on customers to recycle right.

Recycle Right

  1. Do not put any trash, food waste, yard waste or hazardous wastes in your recycling cart.
  2. Properly rinse items prior to putting them in your recycling cart (see The Contamination Problem for more information).
  3. Have an item you’re not sure can be recycled? Don’t be a wishful recycler — when in doubt, check it out with the Mill Valley Refuse service “What Goes Where” tool. It will tell you exactly how to properly dispose of the item.

Visit our Recycling Services page for the most up-to-date information.