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Each week, well-meaning residents of metro Atlanta drop cardboard, plastic, paper and other materials into their recycling bins before rolling them out to the curb for pickup. Sometimes, the contents include items that should not be there — for example, a pizza box with a stray hunk of cheese, diapers or padded envelopes.
Municipalities or private haulers often pay the price for these infractions in the form of contamination fees to processing facilities, and are increasingly requesting to pass the costs on to residents.
A few years ago, when Jason Dozier moved into his Mechanicsville home, he was greeted with a citation after the previous residents had dumped garbage into the recycling container. “It said please remediate this by the next pickup period,” said Dozier, vice president of the Mechanicsville Civic Association. He recalled the notice also stating there would be a fine if he were cited again. Dozier promptly cleaned up his bin.
Across the country, cities and counties are feeling the impact of a shift in the global market for recycled goods as the cost to recycle goes up and the price they receive for those recycled materials goes down, cutting the recycling profits for municipalities. A big part of the problem is contaminated materials, which cost more to process and lower the overall amount of recyclable goods.
Cities and counties typically charge residents a fee to collect recycled materials. The municipalities, which are paid by the ton for their recycled materials, contract with facilities who sort and recycle the items to be sold as commodities.
As the global market has shifted, some communities now limit materials, like plastics or glass, from their curbside programs, because many processing facilities no longer accept them. Some places have also transitioned from curbside recycling programs to drop-off services to cut collection costs.
Industry veterans are not surprised to see municipalities cracking down on contamination in an effort to make sure their recycling programs are economically viable. “A lot of what you see now is an attempt to get cities to work harder to ensure those materials are clean at the curb. I couldn’t give you a number to show how many communities are assessing fees, but it is not an uncommon trend,” said Chaz Miller, a Maryland-based veteran of the waste and recycling industry.
In January, a California hauler asked the city of Richmond to allow them to charge residents who put nonrecyclable items in their recycling bins. Last fall, a recycling plant asked the city of Jacksonville, Florida, to consider assisting with the increased cost of processing contaminated recycling.
City of Atlanta officials told the AJC that residents are not fined for contaminated recycling, but offered no details. Despite multiple requests made over 10 days and the promise of a response, the city did not answer detailed questions about the policies for citations, fines or fees associated with curbside recycling contamination. Instead, it issued a one-sentence statement saying Keep Atlanta Beautiful and the Department of Public Works are committed to helping the city advance innovative recycling policies.
As an avid recycler, Dozier said he would want to see more transparency about the costs of recycling before being convinced of any need to charge residents for contamination. “There has to be a very deliberate process that is very communication driven and resident driven and is very education focused. You don’t want to turn people off,” he said.
Dealing with shift in market
Curbside recycling has evolved since it exploded in the late 1980s out of concern over limited landfill space. The early 2000s brought the arrival of single-stream — the process that allows residents to put all of their recyclables into a single bin, with the items later separated at a sorting facility. Less sorting for consumers encouraged participation rates and led to the boom years of recycling. It also led to more contamination or nonrecyclables — plastic bags, food, low-grade plastics — landing in the recycling container.
Recycling contamination came to the forefront when China, one of the largest importers of recycled goods, tightened quality standards in an effort to clean up contaminated bales of recycling coming into the country. In 2018, the Chinese government banned mixed paper and scrap plastic entirely, shrinking the market for recycled goods. Local municipalities operating single-stream curbside recycling programs began to feel the pinch.
Atlanta collects about 15,000 tons of recycled material each year, according to data from Atlanta Recycles, a coalition of government, corporate and environmental organizations. About 26 percent of Atlanta’s recyclable materials are contaminated, close to the national average of 25 percent. Atlanta households pay $88 per year for recycling services. In 2017, the City Council rejected a rate hike that would have increased the fee to $130. The city’s recycling effort generates $40,000 in annual revenue. As of December 2018, the city was paid $2.56 per ton for recyclable materials compared to $30 per ton in October 2012.
Recycling services are typically contracted out by metro area cities.
In Johns Creek, for example, haulers registered with the city provide basic removal services for waste and recycling. The fees range from $11 to $20 per month for residential customers, but any additional fees and services can vary depending on the agreements made between the hauler and customer.
Latham Home Sanitation provides trash and recycling collection and disposal services for 15 cities in the metro area, including Lawrenceville in Gwinnett County and Avondale Estates in DeKalb, as well as the Fulton County Libraries. The cities are responsible for educating residents about any waste and recycling updates, and Latham notifies the cities of any issues it encounters along its routes.
The company does not charge residents an additional fee for contaminated recycling, said Barbara Jarvis, Latham’s president. The company does inform residents when bins of items include unacceptable materials. When sanitation workers encounter things like baby diapers and pizza boxes in the bins, they leave a sticker on the bin informing residents why the bin couldn’t be dumped, why the items are not recyclable and asking them to remove the contaminated items from the bin.
This week, the Coca-Cola Foundation announced a grant to the Recycling Partnership to launch a recycling education program that will reach the city of Atlanta’s 100,000 households. Through the program, which was tested locally in 2017, street teams will tag household recycling bins with scorecards indicating when residents are recycling properly and how any mistakes can be resolved. The initial effort in 2017 reduced overall contamination by 57 percent and increased the amount of viable recycled materials by 27 percent, according to the Recycling Partnership.
Perils of ‘wishful recycling’
The city of Atlanta has contracted with Pratt Recycling since November 2016. City trucks pick up recycling curbside and deliver it to Pratt’s transfer facility before it goes to Pratt’s sorter in Conyers. There it is divided into commodities such as corrugated cardboard, mixed paper, aluminum, metal and a range of plastics.
Glass, however, is landfilled for now, according to Atlanta Recycles. Collecting and processing glass through single-stream curbside programs brings a high risk for contamination. Glass can break during collection, making it hard to sort other recyclables. Though glass is still accepted curbside in Atlanta, some local cities and counties, including DeKalb and Gwinnett, have ended their curbside glass collection and instead encourage residents to take glass to drop-off locations.
Despite efforts to educate consumers, myths about recycling persist. Not everything with the Mobius Loop recycling symbol (the three looping arrows) found on many materials like plastic containers and some boxes is recycled at every recovery facility.
“Many people think they are doing the right thing by recycling as much as possible, which is typically referred to as ‘wishful recycling,’” said Shawn State, senior vice president Southern Region for Pratt Industries. “But putting the wrong things into their recycling bin can actually contaminate, and potentially ruin good recyclables.”
At the sorting facility, contaminated material is separated from the usable recyclable material, and the contaminated material is then either sent to the landfill or a waste-to-energy facility in Conyers, State said.
As the global market for recycled materials has narrowed, there is also the need to improve technology to process materials and identify new markets where recyclables can be sold.
While Georgia municipalities could not avoid the economic challenges created by the Chinese ban, the state fared better than some regions of the country, said Gloria Hardegree, executive director of the Georgia Recycling Coalition. Georgia is home to 15 paper mills that use recycled materials, two bottle and four fiberglass manufacturers that source recycled glass, a carpet industry in the northwest that sources recycled plastics and one of the largest aluminum recyclers in the world. With so many end users right at home, more of Georgia’s recycling can remain in the state and avoid the whims of the global market.
This year, the state is also adopting the Municipal Management Program, which would allow the fragmented industry to standardize measurement of programs and get feedback that would help maintain local programs. The efforts, along with educating consumers on how to properly recycle, are designed to improve the quality of recycling programs, reduce potential fees and ensure the sustainability of the recycling system. “Recycling is alive and well despite some rhetoric of doom,” Hardegree said. “We just have to pool resources, work together and do a better job overall.”
Materials that can and can’t be recycled vary by jurisdiction, but the general rules for single-stream recycling are as follows:
- plastic bottles, jars, jugs and tubs
- tin, aluminum and steel food and beverage cans
- cardboard, paper, newspaper, paperboard, magazines
- flatten all boxes and do not bundle or tie them
- make sure all containers are clean, dry and do not have food residue
- food waste
- plastic bags and film
- Styrofoam cups or containers
- any plastics or other materials you aren’t sure about
- used pizza boxes
Source: Waste Management “Recycle Often. Recycle Right.”
Collecting and processing glass through single-stream curbside programs can be challenging. Glass can break during collection, making it hard to sort other recyclables and possibly damaging equipment at the materials recovery facility. Given the state of the market — high contamination and low prices — processors may be reluctant to invest in more advanced technology, so they reject glass from their facilities. Some local cities and counties, including DeKalb and Gwinnett, have ended their curbside glass collection and instead encourage residents to take glass to drop-off locations. Some areas offer separate curbside collection. In Atlanta, glass is still being collected through single-stream curbside collection as improved processing technology is put in place. Gloria Hardegree of the Georgia Recycling Coalition notes there is a robust market for recycled glass, particularly in Georgia, which is home to two bottle manufacturers and four fiberglass insulation manufacturers in need of recycled glass.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Latham Home Sanitation provided recycling services for the city of Decatur. The city began handling its own recycling services in July 2018 when its contract with Latham expired.
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