China is refusing most U.S. recyclables. That may mean higher trash bills in the Coachella Valley – The Desert Sun

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Last year, Palm Springs residents recycled 38% of their waste. But soon, that number may be going down (and your garbage bill may be going up).

China and other foreign markets have started severely limiting the recyclables they will accept, making recycling a more expensive process for countries dependent on foreign markets. There’s a growing chance that even properly recycled items will end up in the landfill.

For now, rising recycling costs are being borne by companies like Burrtec, which handles recycling collection and processing for all of Riverside County except Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs.

The company relies on domestic markets across the U.S. to keep recyclables out of the landfill, and is researching developing markets for plastic bags and other materials. However, said Valerie Ward, director of community affairs at Burrtec: “Eventually this cost is going to have to trickle down to residents. It’s already happening everywhere else.”

To avoid this, Burrtec and the city of Palm Springs are working to improve recycling at the local level. They plan to teach residents proper recycling methods and an adaptive mindset to help them keep pace with a fluctuating market.

Foreign limits: Green Fence, National Sword

For California, the recycling story started in 1989 with the Integrated Waste Management Act, the state’s first major recycling bill. Under this mandate, all California cities and counties had to divert 50% of solid waste from landfills through recycling and composting by 2000.

Aside from Desert Hot Springs, which only achieved 29% diversion by 2000, all cities in Coachella Valley met the standard. Palm Desert reached the highest rate by then, at 62%.

To offset the costs of material collection and processing, waste businesses started selling recyclables to China and other foreign countries. These nations would then process the materials into new products for global sale and distribution. California came to rely on foreign recycling markets to meet state and national recycling mandates.

In 2016, however, China enacted its Green Fence policy, placing restrictions on imports of contaminated plastics, fibers, and paper. Eighteen months later, the country implemented National Sword, which set a 0.5% contamination threshold and added mixed paper and some plastics to its list of banned materials. Other countries, such as India and Thailand, have started to follow suit.

Instead of accepting contaminated foreign materials that are difficult to recycle, these countries want to clean up their local environments by supporting domestic recycling.

“For the better part of the last 25 years, China or the foreign markets have accepted our material without question,” said Chris Cunningham, Recycling Manager at Palm Springs Disposal Services (PSDS). “But they don’t want the trash anymore. There’s way too much contamination.”

Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs), the general name for facilitieswhere mixed recyclables are taken for sorting, are making changes to address this. Traditionally, the process has been simple: Recyclables are placed on conveyor belts, obvious contaminants are picked out by onsite workers, and an automated sorter categorizes the rest.

Now, to meet China’s extremely low contamination threshold, that alone is insufficient. Machine operators have started slowing the conveyor belt to one-fourth its normal speed, running the materials through the sorter repeatedly, or spending millions to equip their facilities with optical sorters that can automatically identify high-density plastics. Another trick some MRFs have developed is stockpiling certain items and selling them once they are in high demand.

There are three MRFs that process Coachella Valley materials: SANCO in Escondido, West Valley in Riverside, and Agua Mansa in Fontana. SANCO and West Valley recently upgraded their facilities to include optical sorters and screening systems, and Agua Mansa is relying on a slowed processing line while it waits for scheduled upgrades later this year.

Upgrading technology and slowing the conveyor belt, however, has costs that are difficult to cover amid declining sales. In 2014, the average value of 1 ton of assorted recyclables was $36.63, but last year, it fell to $1.91. Simultaneously, tipping fees — money paid to a processing facility for accepting a certain amount of waste — have increased to an average of $68.25 per ton from zero in 2014. (No tipping fee means that recyclables were highly valued in 2014, so facilities could cover the processing without charging for it.)

The tipping fee levied by the Edom Hill Transfer Station, where PSDS recyclables are sent, increased from $35 to $81.70 per ton —  a 133% increase — on July 1. Burrtec indicated a similar tipping fee at the other stations they operate.

Palm Springs works to adapt, educate 

The Office of Sustainability in Palm Springs is working to translate the changes in foreign markets to its policies and programs.

Their goals include developing better organizational understanding of where Palm Springs’ waste goes and being mindful of the changing market. Because materials that are acceptable right now may not be acceptable in a few months and vice versa, cities have to consider the future when implementing changes locally.

“We have to be operating in a dynamic environment,” said Patrick Tallarico, manager at the Palm Springs Office of Sustainability. “We have to be creating things that are going to be adaptable.”

As an example, Tallarico discussed efforts to select new waste containers for downtown Palm Springs. After finding that very little waste in downtown is recyclable aside from bottles and cans, the city is leaning toward a recycling bin that accommodates only those materials.

However, if the city were to limit Palm Springs vendors to the use of high-density plastics (#1-2) in their single-use food and drinkware, the signage around the bins could be changed to encourage the recycling of those materials in addition to bottles and cans.

Palm Springs also works in conjunction with the local sustainability commission, a volunteer advisory body selected by the city council. The 11 members conduct research, help with outreach, and provide recommendations to the city. They also have a subcommittee that focuses on recycling.

“It’s a unique blessing that we have here,” Tallarico said, referring to the number of retirees in Palm Springs. “We’ve got all of these people that have passion and the time to really follow through.”

The city and commission share an approach when it comes to messaging: Keep it simple and re-educate at the source.

Because of the disconnect between what packages say and what is actually recyclable, they are planning to work with local merchants to appropriately label materials. Additionally, they are determining recycling guidelines that they can give locals in spite of market volatility, and conducting research on how residents are recycling and using bins in public spaces.

Both Tallarico and Cunningham cited the Agua Caliente casino in Rancho Mirage as a proactive recycler of organic waste.

In June 2018, the resort started using Organic Refuse Conversion Alternative (ORCA) technology to turn solid food waste into water. Each machine can process more than 1 ton of food waste a day, and produces sludgy liquid that is sent to the nearest water treatment plant. This process both diverts waste from the landfill and saves the resort money on material collection.

Moving forward, the city and commission will work closely with businesses — particularly restaurants — as they develop an ordinance to limit certain plastics in foodware.

Burrtec, meanwhile, is educating residents through brochures and stickers placed on customer bins. These stickers, with explanations in both Spanish and English, have images of recyclables and notes on what not to recycle. Burrtec also attaches “oops” tags to bins with contaminants, which include check boxes so that residents know what they wrongly recycled. Once the contaminant is removed, the bins are collected normally.

California’s biggest recycler shuts down

There are hardly any domestic recycling markets left in California, but according to experts, people haven’t grasped the urgency of the issue.

On Aug. 5, rePlanet, the biggest operator of recycling redemption centers in the state, closed its remaining 284 facilities and laid off 750 employees. The company cited increasing costs and decreasing values of recyclables as reasons for the shutdown, and with centers all over Coachella Valley, residents are now limited in their options for redeeming recyclables.

Over 40% of redemption centers in the state have closed down in the past four years for similar reasons.

From Tallarico’s perspective, California is two years away from seeing major developments in domestic markets. He also explained that Palm Springs will likely cut low-density plastics (#3-7) from the list of acceptable recyclable items as early as next year, which poses a problem as the state doubles down on recycling requirements.

Cunningham attributes some of the difficulty to regulatory barriers. “It’s very difficult to build anything here. … It costs millions in the permit process. I’ve heard it’s death by a thousand paper cuts.”

Currently, there are only a few companies in the Coachella Valley that are processing recyclables into new products. Coachella Valley Compost, centered in Coachella, processes organic waste, and Thousand Palms’ SA Recycling handles scrap metal.

New incentives for U.S. recycling markets

In December, state Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) and Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) introduced two bills collectively known as the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act. Passed in May, they mandate that 75% of single-use packaging currently being produced in California be reduced or recycled by 2030, and that all single-use products be made recyclable or compostable by 2030.

Though problematic given foreign restrictions, the bills also instruct CalRecycle, a department within the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that oversees state waste and recycling programs, to create incentives and policies that encourage the development of domestic recycling markets.

Additionally, in a July 18 press release, over 40 members of Congress requested that the Department of Commerce and U.S. EPA report on their efforts to address the recycling crisis and confirm the existence of a national plan. Both groups must address the crisis under the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Currently, the U.S. EPA has a Sustainable Materials Management program, which brings key players in product lifecycles together to discuss sustainable production.

“Recycling is in a state of crisis right now, but it’s certainly not dead.” Cunningham said. “It’s just that we’re working through it. It’s (about) developing the right markets and producing material that’s actually worth something.”

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