Americans have been recycling for so long now that putting all those glass bottles and plastic containers into the green bin is just automatic.

Most people want to play a small part in reducing waste to help the environment, but the bottom is falling out of many recycling programs around the country.

Why?

Beginning in January 2018, China stopped buying much of the U.S. recyclable material because too much trash was mixed in with items like cardboard and recyclable plastics, making the sorting process cost prohibitive.

A year later, many large cities are feeling the impact of China’s decision. Recycling companies are charging cities as much as four times more than last year. Cities either have to raise taxes and pay up, greatly limit the materials they recycle, or get rid of trash using cheaper methods. Cities like Philadelphia are burning recyclables to convert waste to energy, while cities like Memphis are sending more recyclables to landfills. Many have suspended recycling programs altogether.

How is China’s decision affecting the Lake Houston area? Large recycling companies that also own landfills and collect trash play a particular game, according to the executive director of Recycle Across America, Mitch Hedlund. In a New York Times interview, Hedlund stated that companies like Waste Management (WM) use recycling, the least lucrative part of their business, as a loss leader to win a city’s more lucrative garbage collection business.

What does WM say?

WM is North America’s largest residential recycler. The company said it is committed to recycling. At first, most large companies like WM did not believe that China would follow through on its restrictions, but they have. Currently, China bans the import of about 25 materials such as plastics and waste paper, and by 2020 will ban all recyclables. So far, China’s decision has created a massive supply and demand issue, leaving 13 million tons of U.S. recyclables without a home.

Lisa Doughty, a spokesperson for Houston WM, says that while China’s decisions have definitely impacted the global recycling industry, the situation is not as bad as it seems. Countries like Mexico and Vietnam are increasing efforts to take other countries’ recyclables, as are Thailand and India. However, some countries are following in China’s footsteps by imposing new restrictions.

Under 5% of WM recyclables are shipped to China, down from 27% in 2017. Since 2013, the company has shipped plastics to mainly domestic markets. WM exports less than 30% of all recyclables, and most of that is paper exported to Canada, India, Asia, Mexico, South America and Europe. Doughty explained that markets for recyclables other than paper and mixed plastics have been stable.

What does Kingwood Green say?

Hal Opperman of Keep Kingwood Green, a volunteer group that works with the City of Houston to improve local recycling services, states the city has been very quiet about whether the recycling problem is affecting Houston. Opperman said his group definitely knows the price of many commodities is very low. The group recently attempted to find a recycling facility that would take mixed paper, but the best price offered was a negative $10 per ton. In other words, the facility would charge the group $10 per ton to take the paper off its hands because they cannot otherwise make a profit.

What does the city say?

The Tribune asked the city about any effects on the recycling program. The public information officer for the Houston Solid Waste Management Division, Irma Reyes, stated that the city’s recycling contract ensures that all recovered recyclable material is recycled and not sent to the landfill. Both the contractor and the city bear financial responsibility and Houston shares half the profits.

Like Doughty, Reyes stated that the city is committed to recycling and is in the process of developing a 20-year, zero-waste plan for sustainable materials management with recycling as a major tenet. The city began planning in September 2018 and hopes to conclude the planning phase at the end of 2019.

Opperman said that truck drivers at the Kingwood Park and Ride recycling station have confirmed that they are transporting the recycled materials to a new facility, the city-owned Northeast Houston 120,000-square-foot Multiple Recycling Facility (MRF) run by Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas, Inc. (FCC), a Spanish environmental services company.

Battle of the Bulge

WM was the city’s previous recycling provider, but lost the long-term contract to FCC. The battle over the 15-year, 5-year-extension option contract was heated at times, but FCC ultimately won the $37 million contract by adding a per-ton price cap for 20 years and other companies simply could not compete. FCC has publicly stated that recycling should never be more expensive than putting trash in the landfill. When The Tribune contacted FCC to ask more detailed questions and about lawsuits surrounding the contract award, the company spokesperson responded with “no comment.”

FCC’s new MRF opened ahead of schedule, equipped with the latest advances in automated sorting technology that can handle 145,000 tons, more than double Houston’s current annual need.

Now that the MRF is open, Houston once again began curbside glass pickup. Two years ago, WM raised their prices due to declining profitability of after-market glass. There is also a profit loss when broken glass intermingles with and contaminates other recyclables.

Reyes stated that glass is an infinitely recyclable material and one that residents definitely want included, so it was important for the city to once again accept glass, which ultimately is used to make new glass containers and fiberglass.

Opperman said that his group gets the impression that WM is moving away from recycling to become more profitable. Many Kingwood neighborhoods have switched to other providers. WM did not renew their contract with Fosters Mill Village, stating they could no longer offer back door-pickup service. Kings Point and several other villages have switched to Best Trash.

Doughty said that while WM remains committed to moving materials to end markets to avoid warehousing and landfilling, they are focusing on materials with long-term market viability – cardboard, paper, aluminum and plastics. She stated that despite current low or negative values for mixed paper, WM expects a market upturn because of the high worldwide demand for paper-packaging products, but that it might take a few years.

Kingwood residents inside the city limits have the option to use city services, but each homeowners association makes that decision. Historically, most associations have chosen private contractors for around $30 per month, even though the weekly curbside city service is free. Opperman said the city provides two rolling bins for trash and recycling. Private contractors offer back-door service and twice-weekly pickup in some cases. Because the city does not service much of Kingwood, Houston offers services like the weekend Park and Ride recycling, Saturday electronics recycling and twice-annual BOPA (batteries, oil, paint and antifreeze) events.

All parties interviewed remain optimistic for the long-term recycling outlook, even though the industry is going through a tough time now.

Clean, Dry and Empty

According to Doughty, WM is dedicated to transparency regarding costs and actual market values of the commodities sold from their facilities. Doughty also stated that America needs to change the way it thinks about recycling. Now that many Americans have overcome the challenge of participating in recycling programs, Doughty said the focus needs to be on how to correctly recycle – clean, dry and empty.

Recycling benefits can only occur when the material can actually be used to create new items, yet about 25% of the material WM collects is contaminated and cannot be recycled; it also increases the processing costs.

Doughty said Houstonians must recycle the right things – paper, cardboard, bottles and cans, not plastic bags, food or liquids, or trash bags filled with recyclables. While almost everything can be recycled, some are easier than others. Styrofoam can be recycled but there are very limited places to do it. Opperman said the City Of Houston recycles styrofoam at the Westpark Consumer Recycling Center, but they don’t pick it up curbside. “How many people are going to drive their styrofoam all the way there?” Opperman asked. “For most of us, it is easier just to throw it away.”

WM, the city and groups like Keep Kingwood Green are making efforts to educate people about exactly what can be recycled and where. The new FCC contract includes FCC spending $120,000 on education. WM works with other industry stakeholders to provide education; Doughty mentioned rorr.com for information.

When items are not recycled correctly, they do become trash. Prices at MRF facilities increase as workers remove non-accepted items, and sometimes batches are so highly contaminated that they end up in the landfill anyway, and that defeats the entire purpose.

Jacqueline Havelka
Author: Jacqueline HavelkaEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
I am a rocket scientist turned writer. I worked at Lockheed Martin-Johnson Space Center for many years managing experiments on the Space Station and Shuttle, and I now own my own firm, Inform Scientific, specializing in technical and medical writing and research program management. I am a contributing correspondent to The Tribune, a Kingwood resident for 12 years, and proud mom to two Aggie sons.

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