By JIM WALSH AND CECILLA CHAN
GSN Staff Writers

In a reversal of what has been a small revenue stream for the town, it’s now costing Gilbert money to get rid of its waste since China enacted an import ban on most plastic recyclables and other materials.

China once salvaged a sizeable chunk of the world’s trash — and municipalities made money off the tons of recyclables that were shipped to the country.

But last year China restricted what waste it will buy, wreaking havoc on the U.S. recycling market.

In turn, Gilbert and many other municipalities across the country have lost a cash cow — and gained a financial albatross.

“In previous years we did collect revenue from our recycling material,” said Paul Montes, town Environmental Services manager. “Due to the suffering market, this fiscal year our total costs to the town for unloading our recyclables is expected near $250,000.”

This is the first year the town is incurring a cost for unloading its residential recyclables. Previously the town was making money, with last fiscal year the town earning $342,709.

In Fiscal Year 2017-18, Gilbert collected 21,173 tons of recyclables, Montes said.

For Fiscal Year 2020, the town budgeted $370,000 for recycling disposal fees, but staff hopes not to use the full amount by reducing the contamination rate.

The contamination level of recyclables spurred China to act.

China declared it would accept shipments only with a contamination level of a half percent.

That means municipalities are held to the same rate by facilities that accept recycle material, according to Gilbert.

Processing costs went up accordingly with the contamination level in the waste.

Sustainability Coordinator Kelli Collins said the town’s recycling bales on average contain an 18-percent contamination.

“Unfortunately, as curbside recycling programs aged, participants got lax in their recycling efforts and began what we call ‘wishful recycling,’” Collins said.

Montes, however, said the contamination rate changes daily in Gilbert. He said the most recent sort contamination was 11.4 percent, which was “awesome” but still showed the town had work to do.

“The desired half-percent contamination doesn’t leave residents with much room for error,” Montes said. “Recycling can be confusing to some residents who are trying to do the right thing.”

He said many items such as plastic grocery bags and Styrofoam contain the universal recycling symbol so residents assume these items are acceptable to throw into the town’s blue barrels.

“The changes in China have resulted in the need for cleaner materials and the elimination of ‘wish recycling’ where residents toss it in, hoping it gets recycled,” Collins said.

“There are some changes in our program with plastics, gable containers and shredded plastic, but all of these changes have resulted from not having a market for the materials. As recycling revenues decline, vendors want materials that are in higher demand. They also are not interested in storing materials until new markets can be found.”

At this time, Gilbert is not looking to go the way of neighboring Mesa, which is taking away the blue recycling barrels from chronic offenders.

“While we currently have the ability to remove recycle containers from residents who aren’t recycling well, to date we have not removed anyone from the program,” Montes said, noting:

“Rather than removing a container, our outreach staff has been able to work with the less savvy recyclers to help them better understand what is acceptable in our curbside program.”

Mesa’s drastic move comes as it faces an estimated $1 million next fiscal year to recycle its trash.

“I can tell you people aren’t happy about having that blue barrel taken,’’ said Scott Bouchie, director of the Mesa Environmental Management and Sustainability Department. “It’s three strikes and you’re out. If we go three times and find contamination, we will remove the blue barrel.’’

Currently, residents after a three-month punishment can request the return of their blue barrel with a delivery fee, he said.

So far, fewer than 100 barrels have been seized, but Mesa is considering an additional fine to motivate residents to be more careful about what they toss into the blue barrel.

Reyes said Mesa’s average contamination level is 14 percent, which is better than the national average of 25 percent, with one out of four items tossed into recycling bins inappropriate for reuse.

To drop contamination in Gilbert recyclables, Montes said the town is increasing its outreach efforts.

“Our Gilbert Digital team does a fantastic job getting recycling messages out on social media, our Environmental Services team works with HOAs and schools to educate residents of all ages on our recycling program and our Environmental Services team also conducts recycle container inspections to let residents know how they are doing,” he said.

A number of cities and towns across the country are reportedly dumping their recycling programs in favor or landfills or incineration.

In an attempt to counteract rising costs and dropping revenues, Valley municipalities are exploring forming partnerships to make recycling more effective and less expensive.

Bouchie said Mesa’s new approach to recycling is “back to basics,’’ trying to persuade residents to err on the side of throwing something away in a black container.

Reyes said Mesa’s average is 14 percent, but it is still better than the national average of 25 percent, with one out of four items tossed into recycling bins inappropriate for reuse.

Chandler so far isn’t seeing a financial hit from China’s “National Sword” policy. 

“China made that requirement to the brokers that they are purchasing from. Chandler doesn’t sell directly to China,” said Traci Conaway, recycling coordinator. “We sell to a material recovery facility that sorts for us. So, the requirement that China is making is on more of a broker level, it’s not a standard that the City of Chandler meets.”

But she said that doesn’t mean the city won’t eventually see the effects of China’s policy.

“It’s a challenge that we face not knowing how it will fluctuate,” she said.

“To date, we have not been impacted financially,” Conaway said. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It’s a challenge that we face not knowing how it will fluctuate. But as of now, the city of Chandler has not been financially affected.”

Mesa, Gilbert and Chandler recycling officials all stress the importance of educating the public in reducing the contamination rate and keeping the program focused on its original mission of reducing avoidable waste.

Recycling items must be thrown into the blue barrel separately so that they can be sorted at the recycling plant and never stored in bags, Bouchie said.

In the world of recycling, public enemy number one is the ubiquitous plastic bag.

Bouchie said the bags get stuck in recycling equipment, forcing Mesa’s contractors to shut the plant down and use a knife to cut it out of the equipment.

Although the plastic bags can be recycled, they must be recycled separately to avoid clogging the machines, he said.

“The best thing to do is to bring it back to where you got it from,’’ saving the plastic bags at home, putting them in a separate bag, and disposing of them in the recycling bin at the front of any supermarket or big box store.

Bouchie encourages consumers to turn down the plastic bags whenever possible while shopping, or to bring their own reusable bags to the grocery store.

“Those plastic bags are the recycling enemy,’’ he said. “The odd thing is that they are recyclable, you just can’t put them in the blue barrel.’’

He said the losses in recycling stem from new contracts, which include a processing fee, along with a cut of revenue received from certain commodities.

The processing fee is now out-stripping the amount Mesa gets back in return for commodities, with some commodities worth more than others based upon market conditions.

Aluminum cans and cardboard are still valuable, but cardboard is often contaminated when consumers fail to remove bubble-wrap from shipping boxes. Glass items now have little or no value.

“If you want to be more sustainable, drink canned beer,’’ Bouchie said.