By Mike Rhodes
Not long ago, it was possible for a company such as Mid Valley Disposal to make a profit from and pay the city some money for picking up customers’ blue bins. That is no longer the case. Mid Valley and Cedar Avenue Recycling and Transfer Station, the other big recycling company in town, signed a new agreement with the City of Fresno on July 1 that will result in our paying them to continue picking up recyclables.
Jerry Schuber, assistant director of Public Works for the City of Fresno, says that because of the low price of recyclables, communities all over the country are renegotiating contracts with providers. He said that the deal Fresno made to pay up to $20 a ton was a good deal.
“There are cities paying $120 a ton to companies who continue picking up recyclables,” said Schuber.
If we lived in a state other than California, which has strong regulations on what you can do with recyclable materials, those items would end up in a landfill or be incinerated. That is happening in other states.
What has led to the collapse of the market for recyclable materials in this country began when China stopped accepting U.S. containers filled with plastic and other materials that we were sending them. The recycled material was part of a loop that included China sending us finished products and when we returned the shipping containers, we filled them with recyclables.
The problem was that in addition to the recyclables, about 25% of the material was garbage. Right now, the percentage of contaminants in Fresno’s blue recycling bins is 43%, according to Joseph Kalpakoff, president of Mid Valley Disposal. Unusable plastics and other things are mixed in with the recyclables.
In the underregulated Chinese communities that sorted these products, everything they could not use ended up in landfills or rivers that sent those items into the ocean, which is part of the reason why there is a huge mass of plastic floating around in the Pacific Ocean.
Not wanting to be the United States’ dumping ground, China stopped accepting our recycling materials in January 2018. Other countries, including Vietnam, India and Malaysia, started accepting the materials at a much lower volume than China was doing, but now those countries are refusing to accept our recyclables, too, because of the high level of trash in the containers.
Will Things Get Better?
The upside of all this is that we will no longer be lulled into thinking that our aspirational recycling culture is making a difference in saving the planet. Mid Valley’s Kalpakoff says they currently “recycle 100% of all glass, metal and paper.
There are a few types of plastic we can’t recycle at this time due to no available markets.”
Asked about the upside of the crisis, Kalpakoff said, “I believe there will be some positive results now that China is no longer taking all our material. There are currently a handful of producer responsibility bills in Sacramento being debated. Also, I read some good articles recently indicating that large paper mills will be built around the U.S.”
Schuber said that he “thinks the market will improve,” and maybe he is right. If it does improve, it will mean that we are doing a better job of providing a cleaner stream of recyclables and that there is the infrastructure in place, in this country, to handle the reprocessing of recyclable materials.
With the closure of so many domestic companies that turn recyclable materials into usable products, it is not obvious how things will improve. When it costs more to recycle than it does to make products from raw materials, the market will have to find a new way to stabilize itself or taxpayers will end up subsidizing the industry.
For now, what local recycling companies are seeking is a subsidy from the city. The agreement, which was on the Fresno City Council’s noncontroversial consent calendar in June, will ultimately cost the taxpayers more money. Taxpayers will pay more for garbage service because of the plunge in market prices for recycling materials.
A solution to the problem of paying more for recycling and subsidizing an industry that has fewer and fewer options of what to do with our recyclables has been right in front of us for a long time. Environmental justice activists have been urging us to “reduce, reuse and recycle” for decades.
Environmental justice activist Kevin Hall says that “this business model of shipping waste overseas was always full of holes” and that “a Green New Deal could seek to address” the recycling crisis. The Green New Deal is a plan for 100% clean, renewable energy by 2030 utilizing a carbon tax, a jobs guarantee, free college and single-payer healthcare. Another world is possible!
Schuber, the City of Fresno’s recycling point person, told me that he had just returned from a conference where major manufacturers were talking about redesigning packaging so it can be reused rather than recycled. Rosa milk is an example of how that would work. You buy a bottle of milk, pay a deposit for the container and when you return it, you get your money back. Rosa then sterilizes the bottle, refills and sells it again.
Until manufacturers make a dent in the market with reusable containers we can all do a better job of filtering the materials we put in our blue containers so local recyclers can process as much of those metal cans, plastics and glass as possible. And just say no to single-use plastic products. A graphic illustrating the proper items to put in your recycling bin accompanies this article.
Mike Rhodes is the past editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. His books, Dispatches from the War Zone (about homelessness in Fresno) and How I Found Love and a Meaningful Life in Fresno are available on Amazon.