This month, China officially slapped the U.S. with a ban on some recyclable materials and tougher standards for accepting others. The impacts are already starting to pile up, including in Weber County.
The county has grappled with problems from its recycling program since at least 2014, thanks to a shifting market in global commodities. Recycling sunk the Weber County transfer station, digging a hole of debt hundreds of thousands of dollars deep. Last year, cities stopped sending their recycling to the county transfer station, opting instead to send the materials to Recycled Earth, an Ogden-based business.
Things looked good for a while. Then recycling took another nosedive when China, the biggest buyer of paper and plastic products, decided America’s recyclables are just too dirty. It’s banning certain types of post-consumer plastics and demanding strict cleanliness standards for the materials it will continue taking, standards that will be tough for many U.S. markets to meet.
The decision had ripple effects throughout the garbage world, including in Northern Utah.
“Recycling is horrible right now, there’s no money in it,” said Mark Allen, mayor of Washington Terrace and head of the county’s Solid Waste Utility Subcommittee. “It’s not a great situation right now; hopefully things will change in a year.”
Allen helped broker a deal with Recycled Earth to have the county’s cities send their recyclables directly to Recycled Earth instead of sending them to the county transfer station. At first, Recycled Earth was taking those recyclables for free. Now, they’re renegotiating contracts.
“They are taking it now for basically the same price, cost, as they are taking for garbage at the transfer station. No one can take (recycling) for free anymore,” Allen said.
The consensus seems to be that residents won’t notice that impact on their utility bills for now. Washington Terrace won’t look at raising fees until they have budget discussions in June, Allen said.
Ogden City, which produces the bulk of the county’s recycling stream, plans to continue providing free recycling for residents.
“We do everything we can to minimize cost of operation so we don’t have to raise rates,” said Jay Lowder of Ogden City Public Services. “We try to absorb any unforeseen costs we have. This is just one of them.”
Recycling is important to Ogden residents, Lowder said, and if they have to send materials somewhere, they’re happy to support a local business like Recycled Earth.
“They’re trying to do the best they can with the conditions they have,” Lowder said.
DUMPING DIRTY RECYCLING HABITS
Weber County residents can help improve conditions for their local recycler, too — mostly by being mindful of what they drop in their blue bins.
As for China, dirty recyclables cause messy setbacks for Recycled Earth.
“We see clothes, lots of food garbage, shoes, wood, green waste, diapers — used diapers — lots and lots of plastic wrap,” said Amy Rawson, co-owner of the company. “The things people put in there can contaminate the rest of the stream.”
The standards for what can be recycled may not always be intuitive, but they are strict. Tossing too many items in the wrong bin can mean an entire neighborhood’s truckload of materials goes to waste.
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“It has to be cardboard, paper or plastics, and plastics have to be the correct plastics,” Recycled Earth co-owner David Rawson said. “If something is a plastic mix, between plastic and metal, it’s not recyclable unless you break it apart.”
When Weber County’s recycling stream is contaminated with non-recyclable products, it’s tough for Recycled Earth’s brokers to find new buyers for the materials, especially with China changing its standards.
Chinese officials announced they will now reject entire shipments of recyclables if materials have more than 0.5 percent contamination. Getting to that standard takes vigilance where the garbage begins — at home and at work.
It’s not just non-recyclable materials muddying up the stream — it’s messy containers. Consumers need to be mindful of emptying and rinsing out their items before they toss them.
“I can’t tell you how many food cans I get that are half full,” David Rawson said.
Plastic bags are particularly problematic for recyclers and cause more costs to pile up at Recycled Earth. That includes plastic food wrapping. They jam up machines and slow down the process. In no case should any plastic sack be tossed in the recycling bin, not even if it’s being used to bag the recyclables.
“Plastic sacks are such a heinous thing. I wish there was more being done about preventing the distribution of them,” she said. “They are everywhere.”
Only certain plastics, labeled with numbers 1 and 2, have value in the recycling market. It’s important to remove the plastics labeled as number 3 and higher from the recycling stream. These types of non-recyclable plastics make up a variety of household products, from yogurt containers to toys.
White office paper and newsprint are fine to recycle. But waxy papers are not — that includes glossy magazine-type papers and the paper butchers typically use to wrap meat.
Cardboard still has decent value in the recycling market, but the styrofoam often found in boxes is not recyclable.
The Rawsons also ask Weber County residents to be mindful of glass. They process their single-stream recycling with a pick-line — with people sorting materials into piles that are later bailed and shipped. Broken glass is dangerous and it easily contaminates the streams.
That doesn’t mean glass can’t be recycled. Residents can drop off their glass directly at Recycled Earth, located at 3027 S. Midland Drive in Ogden. They can also take it to one of Ogden City’s four glass recycling stations.
Even with the rising costs of recycling and the mess that often comes with it, the Rawsons say they remain optimistic about the industry’s future.
“Our main experience has been with cardboard and it’s usually a rollercoaster — you hold on in the lower times,” Amy Rawson said. “I think we’ll see a rebound. Hopefully, we get to a really good place with recyclables.”