Plastic bags, garbage still trashing Weber County's recycling program

Friday , March 09, 2018 - 5:00 AM5 comments

EDITOR’S NOTE: After this story published, Ogden City updated the details on their website so it includes some of the recycling changes; however, the city’s information still doesn’t direct residents to stop throwing plastic bags in recycling bins.

OGDEN — Nearly half of Ogden City’s recycling stream is non-recyclable garbage. Plastic bags are largely responsible for the mess.

Plastics of all sorts have caused major headaches in the recycling industry. China, the main buyer of our plastic garbage, stopped taking the materials this year after deciding the U.S.’s recycling stream is too dirty. That has left small-scale recyclers scrambling to educate their municipal customers about the changes in what they can and can’t put in their blue bins. But in Northern Utah, those customers don’t seem to be getting the message. 

“There’s still a lot of plastic coming,” said Amy Rawson, owner of Recycled Earth, which handles all municipal recycling in Weber County. But, she added, she’s noticed “cities are trying to be very proactive.”

RELATEDGlobal shifts in recycling market creating mess for Northern Utah

Ogden City asked Recycled Earth to do an audit on a load of recycling late last month to see how much garbage is being tossed in the recycle bins. They found 45.5 percent of the city’s stream is dirty, non-recyclable garbage or materials that can’t be processed.

“Our citizens are trying to do a good job. They just don’t know all the facts and it’s our fault they don’t,” said Jay Lowder of Ogden City Public Services. 

The biggest problem with Weber County’s waste, Rawson said, is that residents are still bagging recyclables.

“People don’t understand when they throw recyclables in a plastic bag, it’s not necessarily going to get ripped open,” she said. “Maybe it’s household trash. Maybe it’s food waste. I don’t want to break it open and find out.”

In other words, bagged recyclables go straight to the landfill, even if they’re pristine. And the audit of Ogden’s recycling found a lot of bags.

“They took pictures or our loads. It was bags, a lot of bags,” Lowder said. “I think if we cleaned up our loads just by not bagging them and keeping those shopping bags out of our recyclables, we’d make some major headway.”

Plastic grocery sacks remain a major problem, too. They jam up equipment, slow down the process and raise costs. Under no circumstances should plastic bags or plastic wraps go in recycling bins.

> Flowchart: What can and can’t be recycled in Weber County

The world of recycling keeps changing, which is leaving a lot of locals perplexed and perturbed.

Because of restrictions coming from China, the only types of plastics that can be recycled in Weber Country — and most of the country — are labeled with a tiny No. 1 or No. 2. Any plastics labeled No. 3 and higher should go in the trash. Cities used to tell residents that they should bag their recyclables, but that changed when Recycled Earth starting taking the materials (saving the county transfer station from financial turmoil).  

“People are getting very frustrated. They want to turn in their blue (recycling) can, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, recycling’s changing again. It’s just not convenient,’” said Washington Terrace Mayor Mark Allen. “Boy, we get some calls.” 

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Many city websites still contain outdated information, including both Ogden and Washington Terrace, which doesn’t help curb the recycling confusion. Both Lowder and Allen said they’re working on updating their online information.

Allen and city staff have also opted to tell residents to throw all plastics in the garbage bin to help simplify their recycling message. It’s easier to tell citizens to stick with three materials for recycling — paper, cardboard and metal — rather than asking them to pull out the eyeglasses and search for tiny numbers on plastics, Allen said. 

If the city can coax citizens to clean up their recycling, it could save them money. 

“It costs the same to dump recycling as it does waste,” Allen said. “Maybe if we can clean up the recycling stream, maybe (Recycled Earth) can charge us less.”

While plastics are a major problem, the Ogden audit showed residents need to pay attention to other materials to improve recycling. Dirty garbage is another a big issue for Recycled Earth.

“What people need to realize is if they dump a bunch of food waste or wet waste, it can contaminate a lot of things,” Rawson said.

There’s still a good market for recycled cardboard, for example — unless it becomes stained and soggy. Glass, yard waste and dirty containers also ruin the recycling stream and should not be tossed in blue bins.  

“Somebody that is abusing their system or their container can cause more damage for the people who aren’t because of the collection process,” Rawson said. 

To avoid being the person who ruins an entire neighborhood’s recycling load, waste professionals have a mantra — “when in doubt, throw it out.” 

Contract reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/LeiaInTheField or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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