Recycling program struggles

Recycling program struggles by Cameron Bren June 21, 2018 - Isthmus 

Stricter import rules in China are adding another complication to Madison’s stressed residential recycling program, which is already dealing with an increase in contaminated materials and a depressed market for recyclable products, say officials.

“As recycling costs are rising, the demand for recycled materials is falling,” says Danielle Pellitteri of Pellitteri Waste Systems, which processes all of the city’s residential and municipal collections. Since January, China, one of the world’s largest buyers of recyclables, has drastically limited the amount of material it will accept. Also, low oil prices have made it cheaper to use virgin materials to make plastic products rather than to purchase recycled plastic.

Unusually high snow and rainfall has also been a setback for paper and cardboard recycling because bins get left open and water-soaked materials can’t be processed, Pelliterri notes.

David Pelliterri, the vice president of finance, says more and more trash is ending up in recyclable materials and that is driving up the cost of recycling.

“The more contamination we have in the recycling, the more people and equipment we need to get it out,” David Pellitteri says. “The truly unfortunate outcome from non-compliant material in the recycling stream is it contaminates good recycling and causes good material to be rejected.”

But Pelliterri says his company is trying to fix the problem.

“We are attacking the contamination problem with a two-pronged approach: upgraded technology to assist getting the trash out and a communications campaign to educate our customers and communities on what is acceptable clean recyclable material,” says David Pellitteri.

City of Madison recycling coordinator Bryan Johnson says he doesn’t expect the improvements by Pellitteri to increase processing costs, but the lower commodity prices due to surplus recycling materials could have an impact.

“The money that Madison receives for the recyclable materials from the green cart offsets the costs of the recycling collection,” Johnson says. “And when the prices are low, they may not cover the collection and processing costs, so the city has to pay in those instances to recycle the material.”

Because of the rule change in China, the city is no longer accepting rigid plastics at its drop-off sites, Johnson adds. That includes things like children’s toys and 5-gallon paint buckets, which are now going to the landfill.

“By having such strict importing rules, that’s created a lot more supply for domestic paper mills and processors because stuff they were shipping overseas can no longer go there,” Johnson says. “This extra supply of materials leads to lower commodity prices, and it also means that domestic processors can be more particular about what they accept, too, since they have so much more to pick from than before.”

Johnson says there have not been any changes to what can go in residents’ green recycling bins, but people need to start being more careful.

“By putting only appropriate recyclables in the green cart, not only does that make for a better, more desirable stream of material to recycle, but it also means that the sorting equipment Pellitteri operates works better,” Johnson says.

China argued in a filing to the World Trade Organization that it needed to restrict the importation of recyclables for the protection of human, animal and plant health.

“We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials,” the notification reads. “This polluted China’s environment seriously.”

Johnson says even in comparatively easier times the shared responsibility has always been there for everyone.

“The challenging times today highlights this relationship,” Johnson says. “It’s not only on the residents, or only on Pelliterri. We’re all in this together.”