What's Happening to Recycling?
After the City of El Dorado posted on Facebook about terminating their recycling program, Augusta City Hall received a number of calls and social media questions about our own. Almost five years ago, the City of Augusta locked in contract pricing with Waste Connections to accept our single-stream recyclables at their processing center in Wichita. Augusta’s contract terminates at the end of the year in 2019. We attempted to renew the contract under its current terms but the company rejected that option. Consequently, instead of being paid a small amount for our materials the City will be charged $90 - $150 per ton to dispose of it if the program continues in its current form. For comparison, the cost to dispose of one ton of trash at the Butler County landfill is $31 - 32 per ton.
The market for single-stream recyclables collapsed in 2017-2018 when China, the biggest importer of these mixed recycled goods, established strict contamination standards that few processing centers in the United States have the capability to consistently meet. Contamination occurs when non-recyclable goods, trash, or unclean goods get mixed with recyclable materials. When residents put things like diapers, mini-blinds, and regular household trash in their single stream blue container (yes, we have seen all of these things) they contaminate the whole load. There is a not a magical process that exists for removing melted cheese and pepperoni grease from the lid of the pizza box to make it clean, recyclable material…it is simply trash at that point.
According to the National Waste and Recycling Association, on average, about 25 percent of the stuff we try to recycle is too contaminated to go anywhere but the landfill. The estimates for “recycled” plastics that end up in landfills or in the ocean are significantly higher. Processors are struggling to find buyers for many of the material types that single stream programs accept. Single-stream recycling made recycling convenient for customers, but the cost for that convenience was a significant decline in the quality of the materials. With China out of the picture, there is a glut of bad material in the market with nowhere physically to take it for disposal.
What is Augusta Planning to Do?
The City of Augusta is inquiring with vendors and exploring options for smaller-scale recycling programs that make sense financially and environmentally. We are also inquiring if modifications to the waste stream, such as removing plastics, glass, etc. would make a difference in the cost structure. We will provide more information to the community in the coming months as our conversations with processors evolve. Our customers should expect, however, that the residential curbside single-stream collection program will not likely continue in its current form in the year 2020. We will provide further instructions to our customers regarding any changes to the recycling program in the coming months. For additional information on the macroeconomic trends impacting the recycling industry here are a few additional stories worth reading.