SOUTH JORDAN — Wearing a fluorescent vest and ball cap, Mark Hooyer steps cautiously over condensed dirt and trash — a McDonald’s cup, a tractor seat, the severed head of a stuffed animal horse. It’s a sunny day in May, and the smell of rotting kitchen scraps ebbs with each gust of wind as seagulls circle and caw overhead. We’re standing on about 70 feet of waste, says Hooyer, former director of the Trans-Jordan Landfill in South Jordan.
Against the grisly landscape, a large pile stands out: it’s made up of cardboard, paper, plastic bottles, even aluminum cans. It contains items people diligently washed, separated and put in their curbside recycling bin, feeling good about doing the right thing for the environment.
They probably didn’t know the plastic container their sushi roll came in would end up in the landfill, destined to be crushed into the earth by an 120,000-pound compactor and then buried.
“People would be outraged if they knew this was the destination for their carefully sorted recycling,” says Hooyer, who estimates that more than 40 percent of what Wasatch Front residents put in their recycling bins is being thrown away. Utah companies that sort and sell recycling offer a more conservative figure, saying up to 30 percent of what they receive from cities gets sent to the landfill because it can’t be recycled.
But everyone agrees the percentage is significantly higher than it was a year and a half ago thanks to China’s “National Sword” policy, which slashed the amount of foreign recycling China imports and sent destabilizing ripples throughout the world’s recycling economy. Now, communities in every state are debating whether to pay the increasing costs of recycling, stop collecting certain materials or disband their curbside programs all together.
“The recycling industry is definitely in crisis,” Hooyer says.
Since “National Sword” was enacted in January of 2018, mountains of recycling have piled up across the U.S. as prices have tanked and materials have become harder to sell. A company that sorts and sells recycling in Oregon was forced to break county code and dump paper at a landfill because stacks of inventory were creating a fire hazard. In Philadelphia, nearly half of recycling from 1.5 million residents is being burned for energy, The New York Times reported. And while travelers at the Memphis airport can still toss their newspaper in a recycling bin, everything is being disposed of as trash, according to the Times.
A 2018 University of Georgia study predicted 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030 due to China’s new policy. That’s enough plastic 2-liter soda bottles, stacked end to end, to reach to the moon and back more than 1,000 times.
One of the goals of “National Sword” is to spare China’s wilderness and waterways from becoming the ultimate resting place for America's trash, according to waste experts. The policy says China will no longer import recyclable materials with more than half a percent of contamination (dirty materials or the wrong materials). A 2016 documentary titled, “Plastic China” tells the story of an impoverished family making a living off shredding and melting foreign plastic into pellets. The film, which shows the children collecting dead fish from a littered river and eating them for dinner, was quickly banned in China and some believe it may have motivated enforcement of the policy.
Prior to “National Sword,” China imported 45 percent of U.S. plastic waste, which was packed into roughly 4,000 shipping containers a day and loaded onto empty cargo ships returning to the country after delivering consumer goods to West Coast ports. Western states, Hooyer says, have been impacted most severely by “National Sword” because of their reliance on the Chinese market. After “National Sword,” U.S. companies that sort and sell recycling started looking for new markets in other countries. But one by one, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and India also shut their doors by introducing new restrictions on waste imports. So far, there are few signs that any of these countries intend to relax their standards for contamination again.
As a result, American recycling sorters have slowed down their processes, added staff and raised prices for cities, and millions of pounds of trash that used to go to China are now going in the ground.
Trans-Jordan records show waste dumped at the landfill by the local facility that sorts recycling more than doubled after the policy change, increasing from 464 pounds per month during the first eight months of 2017 to 1,175 pounds per month in the first eight months of 2018.
Those in the recycling business say the market for mixed paper and plastics with resin values 3 through 7 — things like sour cream and yogurt containers or plastic clamshells used for berries — is currently very limited. In Utah, a small percentage of these items can be sold to recyclers, and the rest goes to a landfill, or is burned for energy at a cement plant in Morgan, Utah.
Before my visit to the landfill, I tried to recycle as much as I possibly could. But I never thought about where my recycling was going. I certainly didn’t imagine it being cheaply carted off to China on cargo ships. Learning about the recycling crisis left me wondering, should I even try to recycle? Or should I just throw everything in the garbage?
It’s a question that cities across the country are grappling with. The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit based in Virginia, has counted about a dozen U.S. cities that have stopped their recycling programs because of recent market conditions. Earlier this year, the city of Ogden, Utah, suspended its recycling program for several weeks in order to renegotiate a contract after a 47-percent increase in fees. In other states, prices have as much as quadrupled, according to the Times.
It’s gotten to the point where certain industry leaders have offered a radical suggestion to increase the system's efficiency: stop collecting mixed paper and low-value plastics altogether. The conversation is happening in Utah and other states including Illinois and Wisconsin, according to Dave Keeling, president of the National Recycling Coalition. Various cities, including Flagstaff and Sierra Vista, Arizona, have already made similar changes. But the solution is one many have balked at because it would mean reeducating citizens to change the way they’ve been recycling for decades.
“It would be very wrong to stop collecting these items,” said Lance Allen, Salt Lake City’s Waste & Recycling Division director. Recycling optimists have faith the market will eventually recover and think it would be unwise to stop collecting certain items in the meantime, especially as various amounts are still being sold, even at a very low price. “In the recycling business, we have to make long-term decisions, not knee-jerk reactions to the market. Sending mixed messages is not good; you have to stay steady.”
Other solutions being discussed include: recycling better, finding new markets, encouraging domestic industries to use recyclables, encouraging manufacturers to make easily recyclable packaging and improving sorting technology.
“Ultimately, at the end of this process, you will see a much stronger and more resilient residential recycling industry in this country,” said Keeling.
Where your trash goes
The milk jugs and cardboard boxes you put in your curbside bin don’t actually get recycled in Utah. Almost all of it gets shipped to other countries or states, such as Washington, Oregon and Idaho, where businesses like paper mills and aluminum recyclers can turn the waste into new products.
I was curious to see where exactly my trash goes after it leaves my curb, so I followed an Ace recycling truck from my driveway to one of Utah’s two material recovery facilities (companies that get paid by cities to sort, package and sell our recyclable waste, called MRFs for short). Rocky Mountain Recycling happens to be just 3.5 miles from my house. There, my used plastic and paper gets loaded onto a conveyor belt, sorted by type and smashed into desk-sized cubes that can be loaded into a truck and shipped out of state.
The stuff in my bin that really shouldn’t be there, like any plastic grocery bags or greasy pizza boxes, gets sorted out as “contamination” and loaded into a different truck bound for the landfill. With stricter contamination standards imposed by China, more and more material is going in that “contamination” pile, including stuff that is otherwise recyclable but can’t be sorted perfectly because of insufficient staff and technology, according to facility operators.
Walt Mathiason, manager of Utah’s material recovery facilities that is operated by Waste Management, said 40 percent of what the facility sorts used to go abroad to China. Now it’s about 25 percent.
However, Mathiason disagrees with Hooyer about how much of a “crisis” the industry is really in.
“It’s not a crisis because we can still sell the product. It’s just at a much lower price,” said Mathiason. “We at Waste Management believe it’s temporary. The industry has to adapt to the change.”
Resource Recycling reported that the national average for corrugated containers dropped from $174 per ton in August of 2017 to $70.63 in August 2018 after China’s “National Sword” came into effect. The price of sorted residential papers dropped from $104 per ton to $31 per ton and mixed paper dropped from $71 per ton to $1.56 per ton during the same period.
“Prices have hit historic lows,” said Mathiason. “We want to keep those proprietary, but let’s just say it used to be a lot, and now it’s a little.”
On the other hand, aluminum and plastics 1 and 2 — things like plastic soda and laundry detergent bottles, are still valuable, he said.
Waste Management, a multi-billion dollar corporation based in Houston that collects, transports, treats and disposes of waste (with recycling being one of its least lucrative businesses), plans to "adapt and change" by building a new $16 million sorting facility in Salt Lake City equipped with artificial intelligence technology and infrared sensors that will replace some human sorters and improve accuracy, Mathiason said. The cutting-edge facility will be one of just a handful in the country employing similar tech. It’s the type of improvement Mathiason sees as being critical for recycling processors everywhere.
Where we go from here
While some cities are taking steps to deal with the rising costs of recycling by creating drop-off recycling sites in lieu of curbside programs, like in Presque Isle, Maine, or raising costs for residents, like in Cascade, Iowa, other cities are working on solutions that will foster local recycling to replace reliance on foreign markets and actually make the entire system more efficient.
The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit has been working to educate the public about what really should go in a recycling bin. Its anti-contamination project, which involved volunteers walking through neighborhoods and putting easy-to-understand tags about what and what not to recycle on bins, saw a 57-percent reduction of contamination for the entire city of Atlanta, according to Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industry collaboration.
Renewlogy, a small local recycler in Salt Lake City, is taking low-value plastics, precisely the ones that are hard to sell, and using an innovative chemical process to decompose and reform them into fuel and feedstock for new plastic.
And the city of Phoenix has partnered with Arizona State University on a circular economy incubator that will provide funding for four waste prevention and diversion ventures. A study related to the project estimated the total economic impact of a new plastic processor, along with additional glass and metal recycling in the city of Phoenix over six years, could be $123 million and 194 to 207 jobs per year — not to mention 34,000 tons of waste being diverted from Phoenix landfills each year.
“Recycling is an international problem, but the solutions have to be local,” said Keeling. “You have to get all the stakeholders in a room and see how you can work together to solve the issue for your community.”
“Everything can be recycled if there a market for it and do you have enough quantity to justify the transportation and holding costs,” he added.
But in Utah, some industry leaders have proposed stopping the collection of mixed paper and low-value plastics because those materials are hard to sell and often end up in the landfill anyway.
In April, Hooyer gathered more than 50 people who work in Utah's recycling industry and proposed a statewide effort to discourage the collection of mixed paper and plastics 3-7. Cities are paying more — $70 a ton vs. $16 a ton — to collect those items as recycling rather than trash, he said. And more carbon emissions are required to send them to a recycling facility first before ultimately transporting them to a landfill. Hooyer’s proposal was met with mixed reactions.
“You can say what you want about it, but when this stuff comes to me, it’s trash,” said Hooyer. “It is here at the landfill because it has no value.”
“It would be a huge decision to limit the stream,” said Allen, who believes reeducating citizens about what to put in their bins would require too much effort and resources.
“Once you stop collecting certain things, it’s extremely difficult to start again,” he said.
Manager of Rocky Mountain Recycling, Larry Gibbons, on the other hand, likes Hooyer’s proposal as far as it applies to plastics 3-7, which have never been easy to recycle and are mostly burned for energy or thrown away. Gibbons sees the recent market downturn as an opportunity to correct inefficiencies in the system.
“The reality of it is it has to be an all or nothing approach,” said Gibbons. “If three cities do it and three don’t, that’s no good. But if everyone does it and we can eliminate that part of the process, that’s an amazing idea.”36 comments on this story
One thing everyone agrees on is the importance of educating the public about how to recycle cleaner. In a 2014 online poll by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and Earth911, 65 percent of respondents said they don’t understand what plastics are acceptable in curbside collection. Recycling experts are asking citizens to make sure items are not dirty, greasy or wet, and that things like metals, wires, batteries or large household items don’t find their way into recycling bins. Above other items, citizens should prioritize recycling aluminum and plastics 1 and 2. (You can find this number by looking inside the symbol of three arrows forming a triangle on most products.) A national effort to standardize recycling labels will also help.
“Everyone is talking about how to reduce contamination at a local and statewide level,” said de Thomas. “Recycling does come at a cost, it has always come at a cost. Now, the cost is going up a little bit. But we like to say it’s still worth it.”