An ABC11 I-Team Investigation finds the three major recycling companies in North Carolina struggling to break even on their sorting operations, citing an increasing supply of contaminated materials and a shrinking demand for items that can be reused and re-purposed.
"If there's food in here, if there's Styrofoam in here, or a pizza box with leftover grease or pizza left in it -- all of these items degrade the value of this bale," Stan Joseph, Director of Raleigh Solid Waste Services, told ABC11. "What will happen if we try to sell a highly contaminated load is they will reject it."
The City of Raleigh, Town of Cary and City of Durham, among others, collects recycled materials and delivers them to Sonoco Recycling, the contractor paid to sort the materials and prepare them for resale. The other two major contractors are Republic Services and Waste Management.
Representatives from each company explain that the business model for selling items for recyclables had been largely dependent on foreign buyers, including China. The Chinese government, however, recently instituted a ban on importing most cardboard and mixed paper (newspapers and junk mail), while also drastically raising standards on the levels of contamination acceptable in a load.
The result, contractors say, is a glut of items for domestic buyers who can pick and choose what they want and pay a fraction of the price for it.
"I think you can't not feel the pressure of the evolving recycling industry," Joseph told ABC11. "I don't think we need to be gloom and doom but we need to be transparent about what the concern is. It's a real concern. It's not just a Raleigh issue, it's a global issue.
Cleaning the Stream
Sonoco, Waste Management and Republic Services perform their operations at what are called Materials Recovery Facilities, or MRFs. They are massive facilities with mountains of plastics, papers, glass, tins, aluminum and cardboard. In those piles, however, are myriad items that managers say shouldn't be in there and create havoc on the process.
"The reality is if you've got a peanut-butter jar and you don't want to clean it out, just throw it out," Joe Dehner, a manager at Republic, told ABC11. "It needs to be clean because ultimately that kind of contamination wrecks the whole load."
Other things to wreck the load - and damage the equipment - include rubber, plastic bags, electronics and clothing.
"As processors try to meet those stringent requirements (for cleanliness), they've had to slow down their lines, which has increased their processing cost and that drives the cost of recycling as well," Dehner said.
Indeed, items such as electronics could be recycled, but not in the blue bin.
"Quite honestly I think in most cases the consumer believes they're doing the right thing, but if you were to see some of these co-mingled loads that come out, you'll see a car seat," Dehner said. "It's plastic, it could be recycled, but not at the curb."
Tough choices ahead
With China and other foreign markets closing their wallets, cities and towns will have to adjust to the changing economy. If companies such as Sonoco and Republic are losing money, they'll have to make up for those losses by raising rates, which then get passed down to the municipality and then the consumer.
At some point, Dehner laments, smaller communities may choose to end their program.
"It's becoming a rather expensive endeavor to continue to recycle," he said. "I can tell you there are municipalities and counties that we serve out on the coast that are facing $120-$130 a ton just for processing and that doesn't include the transportation to the processing."
There are no such discussions yet in Raleigh, but Solid Waste Services director Joseph said it's possible that if the market doesn't improve -- and consumers don't clean their streams -- then the city may explore options such as stopping the collection of glass.
"It's the heaviest item we have to transport, so there's a huge cost," Joseph told ABC11. "There's a minimal market for it, and most importantly, and it's very abrasive."
How you can help save your city's recycling program
Again, managers say "cleaning the stream" is the most tangible and important action a resident can do to save their recycling program and prevent their items from going into a landfill.
The City of Raleigh offers these guidelines for what can be recycled and how to prepare them for the blue bin.
What items can I recycle?
- Bottles - rinse and screw caps back on.
- Metal Cans - lightly rinse and place lids inside the can for safety.
- Clamshells - rinse. These clear containers are marked "1" or "PETE" and are commonly used for berries or baked goods.
- Tubs - rinse and discard lids. Round and flexible, tubs are commonly used to hold margarine, yogurt and sour cream.
- Corrugated Cardboard - remove all packing material, flatten completely, and reduce to pieces no larger than 3' x 3' in size.
- Pizza Boxes - remove all food and paper liners.
- Paper - remove paper clips; staples are okay. Acceptable paper includes junk mail, envelopes (including window envelopes), copy and fax paper.
- Newspapers, Magazines, Catalogs and Paperback Books - remove from plastic bags or sleeves.
- Shredded Paper - place shredded paper inside a brown paper bag (not plastic), staple it closed and mark "shredded paper".
- Paperboard Boxes and Tubes - remove any linings (like cereal boxes) or attached paper (tubes) and flatten boxes
- Spiral Paper Cans - no special attention needed. Commonly used for nuts, refrigerated dough and potato chips.
- Aseptic Boxes - remove any straw and flatten box. Sometimes called juice boxes, they are also used for wine, milk, and soup.
- Gable top cartons - lightly rinse, remove and discard caps. Cartons commonly hold milk, juice, or laundry detergent.
- Aluminum Foil and Food Trays - remove all food residue. Foil with food residue must go in the trash.
How do I prepare items for the recycle cart?
- You can help collection crews by preparing the recyclable materials before putting them in your recycling container. General guidelines include:
- Place materials in cart loosely, never in plastic bags.
- Lightly rinse jars, bottles, and tubs.
- Close lids on recycling carts to avoid littering.
Republic Services also offers a recycling guide, with specifics on what NOT to recycle in its bins:
- Bubble Wrap
- Christmas Lights
- Coat Hangers
- Electrical Cords
- Food Waste
- Food Wrap
- Garden Hoses
- Plastic Bags
- Rubber Balls
- Sports Equipment
- Stuffed Animals
- Syringes/Razor Blades
- Waxed Cartons
- Wood/Yard Waste