Recycling will cost Mesa nearly $1 million next fiscal year after China’s curbs on what it will accept turned a money-maker for the city into a major financial drain ,even though it still costs less than sending trash to a landfill.
And after China set a half-percent contamination limit on recyclable loads it will accept from the U.S., Mesa is cracking down on chronic offenders who throw contaminated trash into the blue recycling barrels.
Mesa is taking away the blue barrels of residents who treat them as if they were regular black receptacles, giving them only three chances to clean up their act.
“We are taking that barrel away from you. I can tell you people aren’t happy about having that blue barrel taken,’’ said Scott Bouchie, director of the Mesa Environmental Management and Sustainability Department.
“It’s three strikes and you’re out,” Bouchie added. “If we go three times and find contamination, we will remove the blue barrel.’’
The impact of the Chinese crackdown on the city’s budget is dramatic.
According to the city, Mesa yielded $1 million in revenue from recycling just six years ago.
After realizing about $577,000 in revenue in the fiscal year that ended last June 30, the city began forecasting a severe downturn that is now estimated to put Mesa $400,000 in the red for recycling in the fiscal year that ends this month.
The forecast for the new fiscal year is that losses will more than double to $1 million.
Bouchie said Mesa is not targeting someone who makes an innocent, one-time mistake by throwing one non-recyclable item into the blue barrel. Chronic offenders put items such as plastic bags from supermarkets, wire coat hangers and cords into recycling bins.
Currently, they can request the return of their blue barrel after a three-month punishment, but they must pay a fee to have one delivered, he said.
So far, fewer than 100 barrels have been seized, but Mesa is considering an additional fine to motivate residents to be more careful about what they toss into the blue barrel.
Mesa uses a three-barrel system: black for regular trash, blue for recycling and green for yard waste.
Bouchie conceded Mesa is not reaching its recycling target, with solid waste generally growing during a strong economy and different sorts of packaging being used.
During fiscal year 2017-18, the city collected 120,000 tons of trash, 32,300 tons of recycling and 17,000 tons of yard waste.
“Our focus is on the quality of the material, not the quantity of the material,’’ said Mariano Reyes, a department spokesman.
“The best-case scenario is that we are able to improve the quality of our recycling stream and that new domestic markets will open up for recyclable material that will increase prices received for these items,” Reyes said.
“We also want folks to remember that recycling is the last of the 3 R’s. We first want to reduce the amount of trash we generate (if we don’t create it, we don’t have to worry about what to do with it) and then we want to reuse what we personally no longer need,” he continued, adding:
“Someone else may have a use for it. And then finally, we should recycle, but recycle right.”
The Chinese contamination threshold of only .05 percent makes it more important than ever to throw only cardboard, aluminum cans, paper and plastic bottles into the blue barrels, city officials said.
“We are trying to educate our residents more,’’ with Mesa’s cost of recycling expected to rise from $400,000 this year to more than $900,000 in the fiscal year ending June 30, Bouchie said.
“We are getting materials in the blue barrel that aren’t supposed to be there,’’ he said. “We have reached a point in recycling where we need to ask ourselves, how are doing and what can we do to change that.’’
In an attempt to counteract rising costs and dropping revenues, cities are exploring the formation of partnerships to make recycling more effective and less expensive.
Bouchie said the city’s new approach to recycling is “back to basics,’’ trying to convince residents to err on the side of throwing something away in a black container.
That way, they don’t ruin a recycling load by throwing something marginal into the blue barrel — a practice dubbed “wishful recycling.’’
“China’s intent was to purchase clean recyclables from the United States. Unfortunately, as curbside recycling programs aged, participants got lax in their recycling efforts and began what we call ‘wishful recycling,’” said Kelli Collins, Gilbert’s sustainability coordinator.
“They tossed items into their recycling bin that weren’t acceptable, increasing contamination. China’s costs associated with cleaning these loads and disposing of the garbage increased, and they responded by decreasing the contamination level to .5 percent,” he added.
East Valley recycling bales come nowhere close to this miniscule level of contamination. According to Collins, Gilbert bales contain an 18 percent contamination level on average.
Reyes said Mesa’s average is 14 percent, but it is still better than the national average of 25 percent, with one out of four items tossed into recycling bins inappropriate for reuse.
Mesa, Gilbert and Chandler recycling officials all stress the importance of educating the public in reducing the contamination rate and keeping the program focused on its original mission of reducing avoidable waste.
“We are also working hard to communicate that recycling is the last resort, and that the real key is reusing and reducing waste to keep it from entering into the waste stream in the first place,” Gilbert’s Collins said.
Traci Conaway, Chandler’s recycling coordinator, said her city has not been financially affected by China’s curbs.
“China made that requirement to the brokers that they are purchasing form. Chandler doesn’t sell directly to China,” said Conaway. “We sell to a material recovery facility that sorts for us. So, the requirement that China is making is on more of a broker level, it’s not standard that the City of Chandler meets.”
But she said that doesn’t mean the city won’t eventually see the effects of China’s policy.
“To date, we have not been impacted financially,” Conaway said. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It’s a challenge that we face not knowing how it will fluctuate. But as of now, the city of Chandler has not been financially affected.”
Reyes said that Mesa follows a similar suit in their recycling process.
Recycling items must be thrown into the blue barrel separately so that they can be sorted at the recycling plant and never stored in bags, Bouchie said.
In the world of recycling, public enemy number one is the ubiquitous plastic bag.
Bouchie said the bags get stuck in recycling equipment, forcing Mesa’s contractors to shut the plant down and use a knife to cut it out of the equipment.
Although the plastic bags can be recycled, they must be recycled separately to avoid clogging the machines, he said.
“The best thing to do is to bring it back to where you got it from,’’ saving the plastic bags at home, putting them in a separate bag, and disposing of them in the recycling bin at the front of any supermarket or big box store.
Bouchie encourages consumers to turn down the plastic bags whenever possible while shopping, or to bring their own, reusable bags to the grocery store.
“Those plastic bags are the recycling enemy,’’ he said. “The odd thing is that they are recyclable, you just can’t put them in the blue barrel.’’
He said the losses in recycling stem from new contracts, which include a processing fee, along with a cut of revenue received from certain commodities.
The processing fee is now out-stripping the amount Mesa gets back in return for commodities, with some commodities worth more than others based upon market conditions.
Aluminum cans and cardboard are still valuable, but cardboard is often contaminated when consumers fail to remove bubble-wrap from shipping boxes. Glass items now have little or no value.
“If you want to be more sustainable, drink canned beer,’’ Bouchie said.
-Freelancer Emily Dean contributed to this report.