Recycling market hits local wallets

ATASCADERO — The Atascadero City Council gave the nod at their regular meeting on Feb. 26 for staff to negotiate increased “tipping” fees with North San Luis Obispo County Recycling (NSLOCR).

More than a year in the works due to sweeping changes in the open market, or lack thereof, for commingled recyclables, residents and commercial customers will end up having the expense passed on.

Lara Christensen, delivering the staff report for the City Manager’s office, explained that the companies who handle the waste streams of curbside trash, recycling and yard waste, work together with residents seeing Atascadero Waste Alternatives’ (AWA) trucks doing the heavy lifting. AWA, however, has to pay by the ton for off-loading the material and NSLOCR isn’t making enough money on the raw materials any longer to keep doing business as usual.

That’s down to the Chinese government's new restrictions on contamination levels they’ll accept in imported bales of recycling goods. The calculated shift saw the bottom fall out of the materials market last year, in the process opening American’s eyes to a little realized fact. For decades recycling companies across the nation have operated as sorting and export operations, providing the plastic, paper and metal often shipped back to us in the form of cheap trinkets. The human labor and energy cost of the transformation happens in countries like China and India.

California, with easy access to Pacific ports, sends about a third of its waste materials overseas, Christensen said.

The Chinese currently refuse to take paper and other goods with even a fraction of the contamination percentage residential customers currently send to their blue bins. U.S. exporters have reacted by either paying to get rid of material they once made money on, or stockpiled loads of cardboard hoping to find a place to send it.

In Atascadero, Christensen said, the statistics show that the 32-gallon recycling bin favored by the majority of residents are also the source of the most contamination, with City levels hovering around 25 percent.

“The increased contamination rates are not unique to Atascadero,” notes the staff report, “but there are steps that AWA and the City can take to reduce the likelihood of contamination and to eliminate ‘incentives’ that increase contamination. The City has been working with NSLOCR and AWA for over a year now on potential programs to reduce contamination of the recycling program and to adjust tipping fees in accordance with contract provisions.”

Educational stickers to be placed on bins with revised lists of acceptable materials are one option already being pursued, but in discussion the list of newly verboten items grew lengthy.

Mayor Heather Moreno even found out that she would be one of the recyclers’ less popular customers with her habit of disposing of shredded documents in a plastic bag.  A manager from NSLOCR revealed that such bags are usually broken, clog machinery with unrecyclable plastic and shed scraps of dirty paper all over the facility which must then be cleaned up and disposed of.

Other bad habits, willful or, as recyclers coin the term “wish-cycling” leads customers to put in a number of plastic items not allowed as well as cereal boxes and other wax backed packaging cardboards which often have food on them. Plastic bags, despite any labels to the contrary, are right out, as are most plastics without the 1 or 2 designation on the sorting stamp.

Other objects which cost sorters money by damaging machinery includes rope, chains and hoses. Anecdotally, people have been known to throw rubber items in the bin as well.

Reducing the contamination level is a good start, but, as China moves to a full ban on waste imports in 2020 and companies have already spent a year scrambling for solutions, the pocketbook damage is done.

Under the pricing model preferred to put the most cost increase on the customers with the most troublesome bins, the monthly cost for 32-gallon collection would rise by $3.62 with smaller percentage increases for other customers.

The alternative is to charge all customers a flat $2.90 on top of their current rates.


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