Trash trouble

New costs, restrictions hamper haulers’ recycling

Jennifer Arbuckle of Northern Recycling and Waste Services plucks from the recycling intake one of many items customers mistakenly consider recyclable.

Jennifer Arbuckle of Northern Recycling and Waste Services plucks from the recycling intake one of many items customers mistakenly consider recyclable.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

•Visit and click on “Recycling Guide” for specifics on recyclables and the Waste Wizard tool.
•Visit and click on “Chico” for Recology’s recyclables tool.
•Visit and click on “Think Green” for Waste Management info.

On a typical afternoon at Northern Recycling and Waste Services in Paradise, Jennifer Arbuckle entered the warehouse that serves as the intake point for recyclables collected by the hauler. A truck opened its payload doors and tipped its container, adding to the already massive mound in the storage bay.

Arbuckle, the recycling and public outreach coordinator for NRWS, surveyed the scene like a prospector looking for gold. That’s what recyclables represented as recently as two years ago, when commodity prices meant waste haulers got rewarded for sorting paper, aluminum and reusable plastics. Times have changed.

This day (June 29), Arbuckle kept her eyes peeled for trash. She waded into the lip of the pile and pulled out piece after piece of detritus.

Shipping envelopes. Plastic bags. Shrink wrapping. Garden hoses. Dirty sauce bottles. Oil-soaked cardboard. For various reasons, including recyclers’ requirements and sorters’ safety, none of these get repurposed; all get routed back to landfills, despite their initial placement in a green bin.

“To make our recyclables continue to be marketable, we need to make sure it’s a clean stream,” Arbuckle said. “What that means for residents is that you need to make sure to know before you throw and not just go, Oh, I’m not sure, so throw it in the recycling [bin]. That’s just not working out, because the contamination just continues to grow.”

Contamination refers to soiled materials sent to recyclers. Local haulers NRWS, Recology and Waste Management each has a regional material recovery facility (or MRF) to sort recyclables—none with water-cleansing capacity. Cleaning occurs at the manufacturing step of the process; thus, recyclers set standards.

Until last year, China was the top overseas destination for raw recyclables, accepting one-fifth of California’s raw materials. Then the Chinese government enacted a policy called the National Sword, which put stricter limits on contamination and banned 24 materials, and a campaign called Blue Sky 2018, which enforces that ban. Prohibited materials range from industrial plastic and metal scrap to electric appliance parts.

The National Sword has significant impact. The cleanliness standard is so tight—0.5 percent for plastic and paper—that companies have sought other markets, predominantly in Southeast Asia. Moreover, the economic model has flipped: Recyclers get money from waste haulers.

“When markets were good, and you’re getting paid $200 per bale as opposed to paying $5 to market the bale, you had [revenue for] extra time to sort things out and get that clean,” Arbuckle said. “Now, that’s not the case.”

How restrictive is China’s new rule? Dan Shea, general manager for Recology Butte Colusa, offered a visual example. The previous limit was 5 percent; now, with the reduction by a factor of 10, in a typical 4-yard dumpster, “you’re talking basically one piece of [soiled] paper is contaminating it.

“At half a percent, you might as well say zero contamination is the threshold.”

Recology, like Waste Management and NRWS, is working to educate customers on distinguishing between recyclable and nonrecyclable items. NRWS has an online tool called Waste Wizard that allows anyone, regardless of waste hauler, to enter an item into the search engine and learn whether it goes into the recycle bin. Recology and Waste Management have information online, too (see infobox).

“If we can prevent the material from getting into the stream and into the trucks,” Shea said, “that’s where you’re going to realize savings to individuals, communities and businesses, because it’s going to help us control the cost of sorting all that material.”

Shea also said he’d like to see makers of single-use containers such as Keurig cups have some “end-of-life responsibility” for their products, and for California to reduce reliance on foreign countries by increasing infrastructure for recycling.

The impetus for haulers to recycle even against their economic interest is state law dictating diversion from landfills.

“California is one of the states that pioneered recycling,” Shea added. “There’s an opportunity here to be the model for the rest of the country.”

Kendra Kostelecky, regional spokeswoman for Waste Management, said the National Sword “definitely has impacted our process” but her company’s size has offset effects that would impact consumers. Nonetheless, she reiterated the importance of only putting recyclable materials that are clean in recycle bins.

“Otherwise,” she continued, “we’re creating a greater greenhouse gas footprint. [Each nonrecyclable] goes the long way of hauling it to the wrong place, [sorting] it out and then hauling it back to the landfill where it should have been in the first place.”