Economy of conservation: The state of the American recycling narrative

The Scottsdale Solid Waste Division offers residents both curbside waste and recycling services, but those costs could be on the rise as the global recyclable market is calling for fewer contaminants in recovered materials. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The implications of a 2013 decision made more than 7,000 miles away in the heart of the Far East is beginning to reverberate in the United States of America — and The West’s Most Western Town is no exception.

The Republic of China in February 2013 began a program called Green Fence, which then matured into the National Sword effort and now translates to an almost outright ban of what American’s call “recyclables.”

In a formal announcement in July 2017, Chinese officials announced the Republic’s intentions to the World Trade Organization it will no longer be accepting the world’s — most critically those hailing from the United States of America — rubbish and recovered materials.

The ban has been in effect since Jan. 1.

A view of the material sorting process where recyclables are bagged, tagged and shipped to various ports domestically and internationally in hopes of turning a profit for recovered materials. (Submitted photo)

While the public sector has been nearly silent on the far-reaching implications of the decision, private sector officials contend the shift in the global recyclable marketplace will likely reshape the beloved conservation narrative for future generations.

However, officials at the Scottsdale Solid Waste Department say it’s business as usual as the municipality holds an exclusive recycling contract through 2031 with the Salt River Commercial Landfill, 13602 N. Beeline Highway, which in turn, holds a contract with Republic Services to continue to accept contamination-free recyclables.

But at City Hall, officials there say, costs for services will likely rise as the economic vitality of recyclable materials continues to tumble.

“In Scottsdale, we do the gamut,” said Manuel Castillo, the department’s customer service and outreach manager.

“It is full service — from residential curbside to brush and bulk pick-up service. If you want to recycle it, we want to recycle it. We are always inspecting recycling and trash — we will keep our contamination levels down and we are trying to promote good recycling. The No. 1 reason is for sanitary considerations.”

But those wholesome desires — the ones that seek to keep plastic holders from gripping the necks of amphibian wildlife — comes down to the great equalizer: dollars and cents.

From a negative to a positive?

Representatives of two American waste-hauler juggernauts — Waste Management and Republic Services — say recycling participation is at an all-time high.

“However, recycling contamination rates also are at all-time highs,” said Marek Crabbs, Republic Services area director of sales.

Scottsdale trash trucks on a daily basis pick up the communty’s trash and potentially recyclable materials — all for a nominal cost. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

“Around the country, more than 30 percent of residential recycling is contaminated — either by food or other residue, or by items that aren’t recyclable. The problem reached a crisis level earlier this year with the adoption of new quality standards by China, which had been the U.S.’s largest market for recycled paper and plastics. Until this year, about 40 percent of U.S. recyclables were shipped to China; for Republic Services, it was about 30 percent. Today, we’re sending less than 1 percent of our recyclables to China.”

Republic Services is the second largest waste services provider in the country operating in 40 states, hosting 343 collection operations, 204 transfer stations, 195 active landfills, 90 recycling centers, seven treatment, recovery and disposal facilities, and 11 salt water disposal wells.

The company is publicly traded, has more than 30,000 employees, carries an estimated value of $20 billion and, in 2008, purchased Allied Waste Industries, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Crabbs says changes to China intake rules has made the company better.

“It forced us to hit a needed reset, and we’re already better off for it,” he said. “The restrictions forced us to explore new markets, open new shipping lanes and work with new ports.”

Through necessity oftentimes comes innovation, Mr. Crabbs points out.

“We’re actively exploring new markets — both internationally and domestically — to grow the business for the long-term without shipping to China. We are very much committed to the recycling business and view it as a good long-term investment,” he said. “We’re also working to drive awareness of the contamination issue among consumers. Many of them don’t know what is recyclable today or how to do it in a way that doesn’t contaminate other material.”

In conjunction with those efforts, Mr. Crabbs points out, an educational effort is under way at Scottsdale facilities and at

“The city of Scottsdale collects its residents’ trash and recycling, and the recycling is processed by Republic Services,” he said.

“We want to make sure the city is equipped with the information and educational resources it needs to help educate residents. We don’t have any insights into what streets or neighborhoods might be the highest contamination offenders as it is blended together by the time the materials get to us.”

Mr. Crabbs explains economic viability plays a major role in how recycling programs are developed.

“You can’t have sustainability without economic viability, and we’re seeing that play out today,” he said. “Recycling participation is at an all-time high, but today’s pricing model doesn’t come close to covering the actual costs. The average American household pays only approximately $20 a month for weekly garbage and recycling services. Most consumers would be shocked to learn that around $15 of those dollars cover garbage, and only $5 covers the cost of recycling, despite the fact that the collection and processing of recycled material is actually much higher than that of garbage.”

Mr. Crabbs says recycling costs could be on the rise.

“We believe consumers today would be willing to pay $5 more a month — the equivalent of a specialty coffee drink — to cover the real costs associated with local recycling programs,” he said. “Or more simply put, if you are going to pay $1 to trash something, wouldn’t you also pay $1 to recycle it?”

The Scottsdale Solid Waste Division collects thousands upon thousands of rubbish and recyclables on an annual basis, city officials say. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey_

The Scottsdale situation

For the city of Scottsdale, the recent volatility of the international recycling marketplace translates into less revenue for solid waste operations.

“China’s actions have led to reduced revenue in our Solid Waste program,” said Scottsdale Public Works Director Dan Worth.

“The city’s contract with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community for recycling includes a revenue-sharing mechanism. We get a portion of the market value of the commodities in our recyclables back in the form of a monthly check from the contractor.”

Scottsdale Public Works Director Dan Worth says both short- and long-term solutions are being considered to maintain recycling at its current rate of service in the city of Scottsdale. (File photo)

According to Mr. Worth, after realization of transportation and processing costs, the city would be paid for a percentage of cardboard, paper and other commodities accepted as recyclables.

“China’s actions have significantly affected the market price of the commodities in our recycling stream, so our revenue share has gone down,” he explained. “We are currently receiving roughly a third of the amount we were receiving before the initial reductions in China.”

The Salt River Commercial Landfill is a 40,000-square-foot materials recovery facility processing 85,000 tons of recyclable materials a year. One ton equals 2,000 pounds.

Officials at the Scottsdale Solid Waste Department report the municipal service, over the last five years, has collected:

  • A total of 305,960 tons of residential trash;
  • A total of 120,745 tons of residential recyclable materials;
  • A total of 5,414 tons of residential green waste; and
  • A total of 146,977 tons of commercial trash.

On average, it appears, the city of Scottsdale collects nearly 25 tons or 50,000 pounds of recyclable materials every year.

Mr. Worth, however, says new solutions to dwindling revenue levels for recyclable materials ought to be pursued — by both the public and private sectors.

“I don’t anticipate China will significantly change what they are doing any time soon, so solutions will have to come from somewhere else,” he said. “The two biggest possibilities are development of domestic markets for recycled commodities to make up for decreased volume going to China; and development of better ways to process material to remove waste.”

Mr. Worth explains the Solid Waste Department is a business enterprise where revenue is derived for services rendered.

“We have to account for the current and anticipated impact on our recycling revenues to our overall department budget,” he said.

“The city’s Solid Waste Department operates as a business enterprise; we get no tax revenues, our programs operate entirely on the revenues from the fees we charge for service and our recycling revenue-sharing payments. If the recycling revenue continues to decline, there will be an impact on our rates for our customers.”

Over the last three fiscal years, the Solid Waste Department has operated with the following revenue levels:

• For fiscal year 2016-17: $18.2 million.

• For fiscal year 2017-18: $18.1 million.

• For fiscal year 2018-19: $19.5 million.

Mr. Worth says city leaders are anticipating a decrease in recyclable revenue sharing, but bridging that revenue gap could be solved a number of ways.

“Short term, a continuing decline in our revenue share is an issue,” he said.

“In the longer term, the worst case scenario would occur if the SRPMIC or their recycling operator could no longer run a profitable recycling service and cease to offer the service to us. If this occurs, the city would have to either seek an alternative recycling processor or simply dispose of the material in the landfill.”

Mr. Worth says either scenario could result in increases to costs for service.

“While this scenario is already happening in some communities in other parts of the country, we believe our partners are strong and we don’t anticipate this outcome,” he said of revenue neutral solutions.

“The issue isn’t necessarily that the recyclables are undesirable, the key issue for the Chinese is that there was way too much waste mixed in with the desirable recyclable commodities. Keeping waste out of the recyclables and providing a recyclable material stream that operators can better profit from is the key.”

Officials at the Scottsdale Solid Waste Department find great pride in the service they provide to the residents of Scottsdale. (File photo)

A far-reaching decision

Jennifer Rivera, Waste Management’s communications director, says as China installed its ban other ports around the world tightened their restrictions as well.

“While China imposed the limits, other buyers are expecting low contamination,” she said of the now typical .5 percent acceptable contamination rate for delivered recyclables.

“Decreased demand from China along with stricter quality requirements have created higher global supply and put downward pressure on commodity prices. The average value of a ton of single-stream recyclables has fallen 50 percent since 2017, while processing costs have increased. Every community and every recycler is impacted.”

Officials at the largest American waste service providers say a new narrative will likely emerge on how Americans recycle given the changes to the proclivity for other countries to take in recovered materials. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The global recyclables marketplace has changed due to China’s lead on contamination requirements.

“Over the past 20 years, China became the primary market for recyclables from across the globe,” Ms. Rivera explains.

“Through 2017, nearly 30 percent of all recyclables were imported by China, including half of the paper and plastics recycled across the globe. Waste Management is now exporting less than 5 percent of material to China, compared to 27 percent last year.”

Founded in 1971, Waste Management’s service network includes an estimated 367 collection operations, 346 transfer stations, 293 active landfill sites, 146 recycling plants, 111 beneficial-use landfill gas projects and six independent power production plants.

Waste Management services nearly 21 million accounts, carries an estimated value of more than $21 billion and employs more than 42,000 human beings.

And, many of those employees are routinely decontaminating recyclables many believe are, in fact, recyclable.

“On average, one in four items put in a Waste Management recycling container is not recyclable. These items include non-recyclable materials that must be sorted out and disposed — like food, clothes and yard waste — materials that create safety threats for our workers — like batteries, propane tanks, pool chemicals and medical needles — and recyclable materials that have been ruined by food, liquids and other contaminants,” Mr. Rivera points out. “For context, if a typical bale of recyclable materials weighs one ton that means we must reduce contamination from 500 pounds to 10 pounds to meet the 0.5 percent standard.”

Ms. Rivera explains stringent quality standards has changed the day-to-day operations of Waste Management.

“To meet the stringent quality standard, we have added labor and slowed down processing lines at our material recovery facilities to hand-pick more contamination from lines,” she said.

“We spend extra time quality-checking finished bales to remove any contaminants. The non-recyclable material ‘residue’ removed during processing must be transported to a landfill for disposal. These measures improve quality but also raise processing costs.”

Ms. Rivera says for recycling to continue Americans need to better understand the difference between recycling and what industry officials have coined, “wishcycling.”

“China’s policies affect the recycling industry on an international scale. This is an industry challenge and Waste Management is collaborating with industry partners and customers to address,” she said.

“For years we have worked hard to increase the amount of material being recycled and we’re finding that effort may have had unintended consequences which led to ‘wishcycling’. The additional materials have increased the cost of recycling without the desired environmental benefits.”

Waste Management officials say challenges can bring new opportunities.

“So, although this is a challenge, the global market conditions afford us the opportunity to educate customers to make sure we are achieving the right environmental benefits with recycling,” Ms. Rivera explains.

“We are committed to maintaining the true purpose of recycling – to conserve valuable resources and divert recyclable material from disposal. Recyclers need to be compensated for their processing costs before sharing in any potential revenue generated in the sale of recyclable materials.”

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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