International recycling crisis has city council weighing options
Aug 29, 2018 04:21PM
● By Jana Klopsch
Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District officials say, too much “garbage” is being placed into blue recycle cans. (WFWRD)
By Carl Fauver | [email protected]
It’s not every day world politics, plastic bags and pizza boxes all come up in the same conversation — let alone among Taylorsville elected officials.
But that’s what happened during a recent, wide-ranging city council conversation, addressing a worldwide dilemma being created by new policies in China. In short, that country has determined there’s too much “garbage” in the recyclable material the United States is shipping there.
“Many people think the change in Chinese policy has something to do with the recent tariffs imposed by the Trump administration,” Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District Executive Director Pam Roberts said. “But the changes actually started coming three or four years ago. And, honestly, China has not really changed its policies. The Chinese have just begun to crack down on existing rules.”
Roberts said the Chinese spent decades being none too cautious about the tons and tons of material that arrive from the U.S. and elsewhere. As a result, Americans have become complacent on what we put into our blue recycling cans. Now, China has said, in essence, “clean it up or don’t send it over.”
“Right now, it has become more expensive to recycle many products than it is to take it to the landfill,” said Taylorsville Council Chairman Brad Christopherson, as he raised the dilemma to his fellow council members.
Christopherson is one of 14 members of the WFWRD governing board. The district serves about 83,000 households throughout the Salt Lake Valley.
As the Chinese initiated their crackdown on the quality and purity of recycle shipments, initially the country began inspecting shipping containers at its Asian ports.
“At one point, the Chinese disapproved of a shipment from the U.S. and sent the entire ship back to our country,” Christopherson said. “Since then, they now have people here at our ports, checking the materials before it leaves.”
A drop in global market prices is a contributing factor. But Roberts said, the biggest factor has been our collective inability to keep garbage out of the blue bin.
Those of us who have ever put any type of plastic bag, the bottom (greasy) half of a pizza delivery box or a potato chip sack into the recycling are part of the problem.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” Roberts said. “That’s the rule we have to live by to help make recycling economically viable again. We need to put only proper recyclables in the blue can. And if it needs to be rinsed off first, we’ve got to do it.”
To help curb the problem of plastic bags, Council Vice Chairman Dan Armstrong raised the question of whether the city should consider banning them altogether. He didn’t advocate doing so, but the question solicited a lot of opinions.
“When I was in California recently, we paid 10 cents per plastic bag,” Councilwoman Meredith Harker said. “But if we did that in Taylorsville, would there be outrage?”
Councilman Curt Cochran voiced his displeasure with bags being blown into trees, while others on the council wondered how grocery stores would feel.
Mayor Kristie Overson also added, “There was a bill in the state legislature to establish a fee for all plastic bags throughout the state — but it failed.”
So far, Park City is the only Utah community to ban plastic bag distribution at stores. And the city won a legal challenge attempting to overturn the ban. So if the Taylorsville City Council wanted to do likewise, there is precedent.
But at the end of their lively conversation, the council chose to not take any action regarding plastic bags. Instead, the members promised to assist WFWRD in any way possible to boost consumer education about what is and is not recyclable.
“We just had a residential rate increase in January, our first one in five years,” Roberts concluded. “At that time, we projected our next fee bump would be necessary in 2022. What (China’s crackdown on what it will accept as recyclable) could do is shorten that window. But we don’t know by how much, yet. First, we need to learn what the new normal will be.”
For now, no recycling program changes are planned. Instead, Christopherson — and other members of the Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District Governing Board — hope the market for recyclable products starts to bounce back, at the same time the public becomes more vigilant in making sure only proper materials find their way into blue cans.