Over the past 18 months or so, the recycling market worldwide has changed dramatically. Though the cost to recycle continues to grow, the city of Fort Smith has no plans to curb recycling efforts.
In January 2018, China enacted a policy banning the import of most plastics and materials headed for the its recycling processors, which had handled more than half of the world’s recyclable waste for the past 25 years, according to a study published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
By January of this year, China’s plastics imports plummeted by 99%, “leading to a major global shift in where and how materials tossed in the recycling bin are being processed. While the glut of plastics is the main concern, China’s imports of mixed paper have also dropped by a third. Recycled aluminum and glass are less affected by the ban,” the report said.
This change in the recycling market has shed a light on recycling in America, said Kyle Foreman, Fort Smith sanitation director.
“As Americans, we never really did recycling right,” Foreman said. “China realized it was importing garbage, which was really what they were getting, what we were sending.”
Because much of what is recycled in the country is soiled — think used pizza boxes, unrinsed cans, filthy plastic containers – much of the bundled recyclables are contaminated.
The process for recycling is not complex: Fort Smith is under contract with a processing company. The sanitation department collects recyclables from residences, business and industry and takes it to the processor, where it is baled and stored in a warehouse. The processor ships the bales to a materials recovery facility (MRF) were it is sorted and baled again, this time with others types such as plastics one, plastics two, cardboard, paper, etc. Then a buyer is found and it is shipped again.
This all has a cost.
Costs are two-fold. The operational costs to run the trucks and employee the people to do the work and the processing costs associated with the recycling process. Fort Smith pays $80 per ton to the processor for recyclable garbage. That includes everything residential customers put in their recyclables bins.
In the past, the city was getting the market price minus a $40 processing fee for recyclable clean cardboard collected from commercial customers such as Burger King, McDonalds, Casey’s and the like, Foreman said. With the market for recyclables diminishing, the market price has dropped below that processing fee, so the city is no longer making money on the clean cardboard, he said.
“It is still the right thing to do, even with the cost. It is still right to make something out of something that was rather than something new,” Foreman said, noting that plastic bottles taken to a landfill will not just “go away.”
Though much garbage will eventually break down in a landfill, plastics will stick around for the long term.
“In 100 years, you’re going to still have that plastic in the landfill,” he said.
The approximate 30,000 residential customers in Fort Smith produce about 24,000 tons of garbage annually, about 2,400 tons or 10% of which goes in their recyclable bins. With residential, commercial and industrial combined, recyclables come in at 200 to 300 tons total per month, Foreman said.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States generated about 254 million tons of trash in 2013, of that about 87 million tons, 34.3%, was recycled or composted, meaning the average American recycled about 1.51 pounds of its daily 4.4 pounds of garbage per day. Foreman encourages Fort Smith residents to do more — recycle more, reuse more, reduce more.
“That recycling symbol we all know, the triangle with the three arrows — there are three sides to that triangle. Reduce, reuse and recycle,” Foreman said. The recycle is the last step.”
Likewise, the EPA encourages source reduction or waste prevention, recycling and composting to help stop the deluge of waste in the nation’s landfills. Reducing can be accomplished in many ways. Foreman suggests the biggest way to do so is to stop using plastic water bottles.
Fort Smith resident Jamie Lambdin-Bolin and her husband, Brandon, have started making a more concentrated effort to reduce in their home. So far, the couple has started with small changes. They buy hand and bath soap from the Soap Factory in Van Buren for two reasons: It supports a local business, and the company does not wrap its soap bars in plastic. They try to not use plastic sacks from grocery stores as much as possible, and both keep mugs at work to use for coffee in order to avoid Styrofoam or paper cups. Lambdin-Bolin also takes reusable bottles to work for water and other beverages.
“We even switched to using toothpaste bits that you chew and brush your teeth with instead of tubes of toothpaste,” she said. “We don’t do as much as we want to, but we’re taking steps to be more conscious of our waste.”
Lambdin-Bolin breaks it down like this: If she were to get a new paper or disposable plastic cup every day and only work four days a week, she is still throwing away 208 cups a year.
“That doesn’t even touch to-go cups and straws from restaurants. Anyway, not to be pushy, but my point is I think we all should be more conscious of the things we use and the waste they produce,” she said.
When it comes to recycling, Foreman noted that it needs to be done correctly.
“It’s got to be clean. I use the example of can of beans with that sticky residue left in it. That will contaminate the recycling. You have to rinse that out,” Foreman said, noting that it can become burdensome for those wanting to recycle.
A jar of peanut butter, Foreman noted, would waste so much water washing all the residue out that it doesn’t make sense to recycle it.
“If I have a plastic jar of peanut butter, I just throw it in the trash,” Foreman said. “I tell people they have to use common sense.”