By Mike Rhodes
A couple of years ago recycling was pretty simple. Just about everyone knew to put their recyclables in the blue bin, put it on the curb every week and that was the end of it. What you might not know is that most of those recyclables were sent to China in the shipping containers that they had sent to the United States with consumer products inside.
China eventually got tired of all the garbage mixed in with our recyclables. They did not want to fill their landfills with our trash, and they have almost entirely stopped the flow of U.S. recyclable materials from entering their country.
The result has dramatically affected recycling in this country. Some municipalities are now mixing their recyclables with trash and taking it all to landfills. Some are even incinerating it, which can’t be good for air quality. What does that mean for those of us in Fresno and the Central Valley?
I recently spoke with Joseph Kalpakoff, president of Mid Valley Disposal, to find out what is going on locally. Mid Valley runs the largest recyclable sorting center in the area. Kalpakoff said that “right now, it is not a good situation for processors. The commodity values are depressed to a point where the cost of processing it versus the revenue of the sale of the recyclables is backwards. We’re losing 50% per ton that we are processing.” Obviously, that can’t go on forever.
Kalpakoff took me and Community Alliance photographer Peter Maiden on a tour of the recycling center. Stepping into the loud and busy hub of the operation can be disorienting as employees are pulling items out of the line by hand, the magnetic drum spins over the conveyor belt pulling out the metal and you see all kinds of things flying by¾scraps of plastic, shoes, a bumper and a half-eaten sandwich. All things from our blue recycling bins.
The message that everyone in the industry I spoke with mentioned is the need for people to only put material that is recyclable in the blue bin. Kyle Loreto, the municipal relations manager at Republic Services, told me that if you can put your finger through the plastic it is not recyclable. Loreto called those kinds of items “wishful recycling.” Just because you hope something can be recycled does not make it so. There is a graphic that accompanies this article that illustrates what is recyclable.
Peter McDonald, a local environmental activist, has a little different view of what will move us in the right direction. McDonald told me that “from the perspective of environmentalists, the problem is less that China won’t take our plastic and paper trash, but that in the U.S. we produce so much of this one-time disposable stuff.
“Oil remains so cheap, and the profit motive so intense, that our burgeoning industry of pushing into the consumer market stream every imaginable type of plastic packaging, from disposable bags to clamshell containers is a huge problem. Sadly, it will only get worse without municipalities and states banning single-use plastic to the greatest extent possible.”
Bob Turner, Conservation Committee chair for the Sierra Club–Tehipite Chapter, amplifies on that theme. He said, “The problem with plastic waste is not that China will no longer take it, but that we continue to manufacture so much of it. California only recycles 15% of single-use plastic in part because the cost of recycling plastics exceeds the value of the resulting material.
“The Sierra Club supports legislation to reduce the amount of plastic ending up in our waste stream, including plastic used as packaging material. A new bill introduced in the State Senate in February would require single-use materials sold in California to be either fully recyclable or compostable by 2030. The bill directs the state Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery to develop a plan in the next two years for meeting this goal.”
We are fortunate to live in California given that our state has mandated that a certain percentage of our trash must be recycled. By 2020, that number will be 70%. But if recyclers such as Mid Valley are losing money on every blue bin they pick up, they will reach a breaking point if something doesn’t change.
Here is how Kalpakoff explains the economics of the recycling industry: “We know that garbage goes to landfill, and it is $25 a ton. We know that green waste goes to a composting facility and that costs $20 a ton. Historically, the blue bin has had value, so you would offset that cost with the price you would sell the commodities for.” The recycling material now is worth far less than the cost to collect, sort and sell it.
Because recyclers are required by state law not to send this material to landfills and they are losing money with every ton they process, what are they going to do? During the tour of Mid Valley, Kalpakoff and I walked around the facility where he showed us large bales of paper and cardboard that he is storing until something changes. On the parking lot on the north side of this facility were 2,000–3,000 tons of paper that he could not sell, even at a loss. Nobody will accept it.
The situation could resolve itself when market forces change the economic situation. Cardboard that was selling for $250 a ton in mid-2017 now is valued at $40–$50 a ton, according to Kalpakoff. If the price for this and other recyclables were to rebound, the crisis would be resolved.
A proposal Kalpakoff is making to the City of Fresno this month is that it share the risk of fluctuating markets. If the value of recyclables is low, the city or county would subsidize recycling. If the value of materials is higher than the cost to collect and sort it, companies such as Mid Valley would share the profit with local government. My understanding is that there is another proposal the recycling industry will present to local and state government that will give recyclers a waiver on the law, allowing them to take recycled paper to a landfill.
There is a company that is hoping to change the way we think about recycling. Its idea is to make most containers you get food in reusable. Here is how the company describes itself: “‘Loop’ is a circular shopping platform that transforms the packaging of your everyday essentials from single-use disposable to durable, feature-packed designs.”
The concept behind Loop is to rethink how we package our food products and reuse those containers over and over, like we do with Rosa milk bottles or how soda bottles used to be returned to a store for the deposit. The difference will be that you will order your groceries, they will be delivered to you in a box of containers that can be endlessly reused. Unfortunately, it could be a while before Loop comes to Fresno.
There is already a service in Fresno that eliminates most of the packaging on fruits and vegetables. Food Commons in Fresno (www.ooooby.org/fresno) is a place you can connect with right now that will provide you with great organic, locally grown food that dramatically reduces the packaging and waste associated with the food industry. Buying at a farmers’ market is another way to avoid unnecessary packaging.
There are emerging and existing solutions to the recycling crisis, but solving the large volume of plastics, metal and other material flowing into recycling centers such as Mid Valley will depend on what we do next. Manufacturers can make more products that are recyclable. Local government can work with recyclers making sure they are able to find a short-term solution to this crisis. Ultimately, we will need to reduce the stream of packaging and create more places where paper, glass, metal and plastic can be reprocessed for reuse in this country.
We are fortunate to live in a state that prevents the waste industry from doing what is easy and cheap¾taking recyclables to landfills or burning them in smokestacks, which is what happens in other states. This is a reminder of why the right-wing conservative mantra of deregulation, privatization and cuts to social services is so damaging to our environment and the world we live in.
For progressives, our mantra in support of Mother Earth and for environment justice is reduce, reuse and recycle.MVD-Recyclable-Materials-Flyer-1
Mike Rhodes is an independent journalist and past editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.