A Frank talk with some of Arizona’s recycling representatives
Recently Green Living Magazine sat down with many representatives from city and town solid waste departments at a recent Solid Waste Association of America (SWANA) meeting. Here, their frank conversation—what challenges they face, what they want consumers to know, and more.
Green Living Magazine: We know there have been a lot of changes in the recycling industry recently… what do you think are the biggest issues the industry is facing right now?
Ernie Ruiz, Solid Waste Superintendent, City of Glendale: Right now, for our city in particular, and for most cities that run both landfill and MRF [materials recycling facility], the biggest challenge is obviously the markets and what’s going on exporting-wise. We’ve been seeing a lot of questions and a lot of markets taking a downturn that it’s hard for us to support the recycling side when you’re running a landfill for $32 a ton versus running a MRF that’s costing you a million-plus dollars to run… and you’re not making the revenue to support it.
Given the facts to residents, letting them comment, letting your council know the true effect it’s having on your budget is critical.
We recently went to council and advised them that the program is in the negative, the landfill is subsidizing the program, and asking the question of council, “Do you want to continue to recycle?” Fortunately for us, and I think most municipalities, council supports recycling, they understand the costs that are behind it. I think the big thing is getting the information out to the residents. Some residents may or may not watch the government channels or listen to the council meetings. I think it’s important that our residents truly understand what it’s costing the cities so that they have a full picture of what their bill may end up looking like in order to pick up their recycling in the coming years. I think most municipalities are going to have to start passing that cost on to the customers. I know other municipalities—you may have read in the paper, Surprise being one of them—have gone the opposite way and they’re no longer picking up recycling to take to the MRFs. They’re picking it up, but they’re sending all those materials to a landfill right now.
Pat L. Tapia, Deputy Director, City of Tucson: Everyone expects recycling to be full cost recovery, and I can tell you it’s not. The only time you’re going to recover it all is if you’re billing the right amount, along with being able to use revenues from the sale of the commodity. Some think that full cost recovery is based on the sale of the recyclables, but it’s not. For years, we’ve seen other curbside services cover and subsidize cost.
The current situation we’re in now is that even though we’re going to save some operational costs by servicing every other week, it’s not going to fully cover what we’re actually losing on the revenue side because of recycling.
So, it’s a big challenge to get the residents to understand that the sale or market of the material doesn’t always recover the full cost of collecting it.
The other challenge is educating the public on how sustainable a recycling program that you have now can be sustainable for the future? Right now, I think there’s an unknown. The question is how long is this going to last? A lot of times a business is able to withstand it for a year or two, make some changes here or there, and survive. Since the market is unpredictable, we cannot be sure how long this will go on. Continuing down this same path for the next three, four or five years—what will it take for us to make that decision or that big change that’s going to help us sustain the program for the long-term instead of eliminating the program.
Dave Bennett, Solid Waste Operations Manager, City of Scottsdale: I’d like to ask [everyone]… can you talk about some of the past panels you’ve been on and discuss some of the ideas for cleaning up the waste stream? Processing fees are driving costs because of contamination, what ideas have come from these discussions? For plastics, is the answer just accepting plastic bottles? Maybe just collecting cardboard and newspaper? Simplifying it? Do we need to go back to the early 2000s where there was less confusion? One example of this would be plastics.
Pat L. Tapia: Yes, that’s also a big challenge. In addition to cost, you also have a huge challenge of contamination to deal with. The conversation is, how are we going to educate the public on that program? What are some of the consequences when we find contamination, do we remove their containers, enforce fines? We have to remember that we would just adding more obstacles, we will need to have enforcement agents. It may seem easy to say we’re going to go out there and mandate the program or enforce the program, but the reality is that will only add additional costs to the operation. Who will be responsible to pay to staff to go out there and inspect it? It’s a double-edged sword. I think those are some of the challenges we have going on right now.
Ernie Ruiz: That’s a good question. I think it’s changed. I think everyone years back, when recycling first started out, the idea was about diversion. Everyone was looking to divert as much material as they could from the landfills. If you see the lists from when recycling first started it was around seven items. Now I think we’re seeing some lists with as much as 26 items. And out of those 26 items, how much is really bad. For example, glass is inert, so it doesn’t hurt a landfill. It’s actually a good thing if it goes into a landfill because it’s inert, it’s not going to hurt anything. But it’s heavy, so it was great for diversion numbers to drive high diversion rates. Now it’s really turned our industry. Now it’s volume. Now we’ve got to generate a quality material going into the MRF. We’re looking at that.
I don’t know if that’s all the answers, but some of the things we’re looking at is that we might have to reduce on the number of items we’re collecting. Maybe we need to focus in only on cardboard or newspaper. Maybe it’s plastics numbers 1 and 2. Those materials are still selling. Those are still products that are marketable out there. [Other items] are actually costing us money. The problem is it’s taken us 25-30 years to get to this point, and now, if we’re going to make a change and go in a different direction, how long is it going to take to get those out of circulation?
Dave Bennett: Isn’t that basically driving the costs? The processing fees to eliminate the stuff they weren’t able to market?
Pat L. Tapia: Yes, it’s driving your costs up because they can’t do anything with it and now it’s become a disposal cost.
Our current agreement allows a certain percentage of contamination. In Tucson, our agreement is 18.7%. We don’t get fined or charged anything if contamination is at or below 18.7%. When we get anything above 18.7% contamination, then we have to pay an additional fee. The current average of contamination in Tucson is closer to 30%. So, then we are charged the additional 12% over what we already pay. Our per tonnage rate has gone from $37 a ton to almost $100 a ton, for every ton we take into the recycling facility.
This is the big educational part, at what point do you continue to take it to a MRF to be processed? So, I understand why the City of Surprise made changes. It makes financial sense. If I can take it to a landfill and dispose of it for $31 a ton instead of paying $100, why wouldn’t that make sense? At the end of the day, the residents are going to be paying whatever that is. So, if we reduce that number we can reduce the types taken in and that will help with what that cost is going to be.
Contamination is a big issue. If we can get recyclables cleaned up and out of MRFs, collect clean material, create a list of quality materials collected and delivered to MRFs, then our costs won’t go up as much. If recycling bins continue to be contaminated, it’s always going to cost more to process.
We’ve been doing this for a long time and do educate, but it’s not unusual to still see palm fronds in the recycle bin, we are still seeing car batteries, and other things that shouldn’t be put in a recycle bin. Swing sets, the majority of the plastic used in a swing set is acceptable in a MRF, but not a whole swing set with the poles and chains attached to it. That’s what hard.
If you look at every container, everyone puts messages on them. But [the residents] will say, “Well, I don’t know what goes in there, you should put labels on your containers.” Well, the labels are actually on top of the containers!
So, the messages are out there, it’s just getting the public to actually do it the correct way. And I don’t know what that answer is. I think we’ve been trying to research that for a lot of years, how we can educate people out there.
I think we spend a lot of time talking to the residents who do recycle the right way. They’re the ones who show up and seem to care about the program. We have training classes, we talk to everybody, but they’re probably not the ones who are causing the problem. It’s the ones who aren’t paying attention and don’t care. So, how do we reach that group? That’s the contamination we’re trying to figure out.
Ernie Ruiz: The one thing we did do when we met with council was stressed the fact that we need to get back to the basics, back to when we kicked this thing off 20-25 years ago, back to the basics. Your 1s and 2s, your paper, which has dropped tremendously because the paper isn’t even in the bins anymore. Where it once was 60% of your material coming into an MRF, it’s now went down all the way—and I don’t know the numbers for all the MRFs—but anywhere from 30%-40%. Getting back to the basics, taking out the 3s through 7s, which aren’t moving anymore and are basically still sitting on everyone’s deck… well, the ones who are still collecting them anyways, and going back to your tin cans, aluminum, fibers and your plastics 1s and 2s is the direction we’re heading to and putting more money into our programs from an education standpoint. That’s another thing that Glendale’s doing. It’s because we know, the message has to get out to the people who are doing the recycling. And getting it to an occasional meeting is not going to hit the public.
You get it on your government channel, you get it into the papers, you get it into the radio stations. At one time, the municipalities had a group… I see that as playing a big part, because the messages we sent out as municipalities was a combined effort of the same message to all the residents, even though [different municipalities were accepting different materials]. We need to get back on the same boat when it comes to advertising what we allow in our bins. I think that’s going to be a critical piece when it comes to spreading the message out in a metropolitan area, even reaching out as far as Tucson goes.
Cristina Polsgrove, Public Information Officer, City of Tucson: There is an effort going on right now for people in the Maricopa County area to bring in all of us to start sharing similar messages, and we’re doing that in Tucson, and we’re working with a group here in the Valley. We’re also working with stakeholders in the Tucson area to get everyone on the same message, because the reality is, at least in Tucson, the recyclables that are being collected are going to the same processing facility, so they really shouldn’t have different lists.
Rich Allen, Salt River Landfill: You know, this all began because China changed the way they were accepting materials, and they were stopping taking materials. But, you know, prior to China becoming a big player, there was a lot more capacity for taking papers in the United States. We used to have a recycled fiber plant in northern Arizona, but they couldn’t compete with what the Chinese were paying for materials. So, it’s going to take a while to build back that capacity. You’re starting to see it. Not in the Western United States, but you’re seeing it in the Midwest and you’re seeing it on the East Coast. What you’re seeing is that the Chinese are actually getting involved in it. They’re taking ownership of plants in the United States, that way they only can ship over the pulp and they don’t have to take all the garbage that was coming with these loads. But it’s going to take a while to get that capacity back to what it was. The one thing I caution anyone who is thinking of landfilling, is that you have to be upfront with your council and you have to be upfront with your residents, because the last thing you want is [TV stations] coming out there and you were supposed to be taking it to the recycling plant and now it’s going to the landfill. You have to be upfront. Maybe the residents are willing to pay an extra $2 a month or whatever just to make sure it is recyclable. But, you won’t know until you ask them.
Green Living Magazine: What do you see for the future of the industry?
Ernie Ruiz: Everything going to cans! Beer, soda, water.
Pat L. Tapia: You’re starting to see that, actually. I have seen Dasani bottling water in aluminum cans when it used to be in plastic bottles only.
Cristina Polsgrove: Water is even going into aluminum cans.
Matt Morales, Landfill Project Manager, City of Flagstaff: There’s going to have to be a change in the industry, as far as the manufacturers go.
Rich Allen: That brings up a good point, actually, that the manufacturers of these products need to get the recyclers involved. They come up with these packaging materials and they don’t even think twice about what the end result of that packaging materials will be.
I remember when Miller came out with a new type of plastic beer bottle that nobody was recycling that number plastic. If they had just gotten with recycling folks ahead of time, they could have probably dealt with it easier.
Matt Morales: Last year at our national conference, Procter & Gamble was there and talking about what they were doing to try and be not only ahead of the curve with this issue, but ahead for the next 20 years. With as much plastic as they produce, they could have just put their head in the sand, and not have a conscious thought about it, but we do see that producer responsibility is increasing.
Rich Allen: Well, in this state too, [recycling] is being done voluntarily. There are no laws or regulations requiring recycling, and that makes it harder to do. Whereas in California, they have laws basically saying that you’ve got to divert a certain percentage from the landfill or you face financial penalties. They also go after the producers—they’ve got to take back old carpet, they’ve got to take back old paints and things of that nature. I’d fall out of my chair if they passed those laws here. Tires are the only thing they mandate get recycled.
Sean Tebbe, Director of Business Development, HUB Environmental Group: I just think it’s a complicated issue. In order to find a solution, we have to first acknowledge why we are in this predicament. As a society, we must invest in and encourage innovation.
I think a lot of municipalities are going to be challenged with what to do with recycling in the very near future. They obviously can’t discontinue the service to customers long term. I do believe, however, they need to reeducate residents about which commodities can go in the cans, based on value. We’ve got to expedite this process and possibly introduce some incentives for innovation in this country so we can solve our own problems… and as quickly as possible.
Pat L. Tapia: When we first started recycling in Tucson, we had a curbside sort program. We had an operator on the truck who would jump out of the truck, take the recyclables that were collected, and leave the debris behind with a note that they weren’t recyclable and to throw them away. So we were producing a good product; things were clean when they got to the MRF. But everyone forgets how expensive that was and what kind of labor, time and equipment went into that.
Some believe we should go back to that and I say ok, we can, but with the understanding that we’ll almost need to double our current collection routes, as well as need that much more equipment. No one can justify taking all these steps back; we need to really look at what makes the most sense going forward. The whole reason we went to automation and getting a container was to save money and manpower. So, it’s really difficult to go back. No doubt it’s going to get you a cleaner/better material, but is that savings going to offset how much you’re going to save operationally.
Dave Bennett: Just listening to everybody here, if you look at our industry it’s very fragmented—across the United States and even here in Arizona, you can drive five minutes and be in one city that accepts something, and then five minutes later, being in a city that accepts glass. If all of the cities could get on the same page, that would make it a lot easier for everyone. And this translates to our education efforts. In Scottsdale, we have a 10% contamination rate. This isn’t by accident. Our outreach team devotes a lot of time in our schools reminding kids, why it’s important to recycle, what is recyclable, and why certain items aren’t recyclable. The message needs to be consistent. It shouldn’t matter on the city or state you live in.
With regards to changing packaging practices, we had a representative from Procter & Gamble attend one of our meetings. This representative talked about why they use pouches to package tuna versus tin cans. While these pouches may not be recyclable now, or in the future, the energy expended to make them is far less than a tin can. Also, the efficiency savings derived from this form of packaging has reduced their transportation needs. With all things considered, they [Procter & Gamble] see pouches having less impact to our environment than tin cans.
Ernie Ruiz: A lot of things that people don’t factor in is the carbon footprint being put out to collect this material when it really has no value right now or it’s not making its way to an end user that’s actually going to use it. The carbon footprint when you factor in how much fuel it’s taking to pick this material up, and the amount of time it’s taking to process it, and the amount of electricity that’s being used at the MRF to process it, and everything else. Right now, recycling is a negative. A huge negative when you put all the numbers together. But again, we’re doing it for the residents because that’s what they want. I think that as long as they’re educated and you’re being transparent about what’s actually happening and they still want it, we’re here at the municipalities to serve our residents and that’s what we’re going to do when it all comes down to it.
Pat L. Tapia: I think we need to emphasize that using landfills are okay, especially with the gas and energy programs going on there. It’s a good thing. There are many programs and benefits to using landfills. There are alternate programs like composting that are a good thing. Even though it’s going to a landfill, it doesn’t need to be negative. I think we’ve been sending that negative message to everyone, saying, “If it’s going to a landfill, that’s bad, bad, bad. It has to be recycled.” But landfills generate gases that will help the environment, as well, among other options. I think the landfill guys are really going to be able to say, “Hey, this is a good thing for us if you bring it to us.”
Cristina Polsgrove: Yes, for the landfill, we’ve been saying for years that it’s a bad thing and to keep as much out of it as we can, but in these communities where it’s much more densely populated and much more limited on land, yeah, they can’t build landfills, so they have to have other options. But, you have to look at your environment, and here in Arizona that’s not a problem. And it’s very price-efficient. [Plus], knowing what I know now about how they’re regulated, I wouldn’t worry about environmental impact.
Photo by Jenny Kaufman