While cities around the nation are forced to end recycling programs, dump recyclable materials in landfills or increase resident recycling fees, Laramie’s recycling program remains stable, according to city staff.
Cities are scrambling because, after years of importing and processing America’s recyclable material, China has stopped to focus on its own waste.
Interim Public Works Director Brooks Webb said while costs have increased for Laramie’s recycling program, so far, resident’s fees are able to cover the difference.
“We’re really hoping we can continue to do that — we don’t want to have to increase the rates,” Webb said.
Most of the cost increases the city is seeing, Webb said, come from contaminants in the recyclable material. The city, he said, has always seen contamination fees from the company that processes the city’s recycling in Denver, Waste Management. But those fees have “almost doubled” since China’s decision.
China cited contaminants as one of the issues leading the country to stop accepting foreign recyclables. Contaminants can range from mixing in non-recyclable trash to residents including materials they don’t realize aren’t recyclable.
Webb said the most commonly seen contaminants by the Solid Waste Division as it processes Laramie’s recyclables are glass and pizza boxes, not surprising for a college town.
“If there’s not grease, they’re fine, but once you get grease in those pizza boxes it just ruins them,” Webb said.
Many municipalities are reporting having to dump recyclables into their landfills or burning them. Because of Laramie’s relatively smaller size, Webb said the city’s recyclables are a little more marketable.
“I think now it’s getting to this point where you’ve got these communities — especially these really progressive communities on the West Coast and East Coast — and a lot of it they’re having to landfill, it’s really sad,” Webb said. “Because we’re a smaller community, we don’t have the mass amounts of quantities that they have that they’re trying to find markets for, that’s I think what makes it tough for them.”
Plastics especially have a tough market, Webb said. It’s exceedingly difficult to find buyers for harder plastics numbered 3-7 because of high recycling costs. This includes polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a number three plastic commonly used for plumbing pipes, as well as plastic number six, polystyrene, which commonly includes Styrofoam containers.
Even with the uncertainty in the market, Webb said Laramie’s recycling program has been growing every year. Even with the continued growth, only about 12 percent of the city’s recycling ends up as trash.
“If we’re under 15 percent, Waste Management is super happy because most people come in at 20-25 percent,” Webb said.
Looking to the shaky future of recycling, Webb said the hope within the industry is for larger companies to start picking up on the demand and addressing it domestically, instead of cities and towns having to ship the materials overseas.
“That’s really what people in the industry are hoping is going to happen,” Webb said. “It’s going to drive those private companies to say, ‘Hey, there’s some value here if we do it here in the United States. We’ve got all these people that have this material with nowhere to go, let’s give them somewhere to take it.’”