Faced with mounting losses in its 25-year-old recycling program, Mesa plans to restrict the items it collects and close three bulk recycling centers while continuing curbside collections.
Mayor John Giles rejected Councilman Kevin Thompson’s suggestion the city follow Surprise’s lead and suspend recycling after a report showed the city is actually spending more on recycling than sending trash to the landfill.
New contracts with recycling providers are driving up the costs, along with lower prices paid for certain commodities such as cardboard and paper, said Scott Bouchie, the city’s director of environmental services and sustainability.
He said the new contracts include a processing fee per ton and payment to the city of a percentage of a commodity’s value. These contracts replaced flat fees per ton that were more favorable to cities.
The cost of recycling is now $45 a ton, based upon two new contracts that will come before the city council on Sept. 23, as opposed to the $27 a ton fee the city pays for shipping garbage to landfills, he said.
“I like the way Surprise rolled theirs out,’’ Thompson said, describing how the West Valley city suspended recycling to find a way to cut losses.
Surprise also encouraged residents to continue putting recyclable items in blue bins, with the idea of preserving a good habit, even though the plastic bottles, aluminum cans and other items will be sent to the landfill.
“We want to be good stewards of the land and the environment, but there is a cost,’’ Thompson said, adding that Mesa risks confusing residents by restricting which items it will accept in blue recycling barrels.
“I think there needs to be a fee or we need to suspend recycling,’’ Thompson said.
But council members Jennifer Duff, Giles and Jerry Whittaker objected for a variety of reasons and council member David Luna suggested better education campaigns.
“We, as a society, need to participate in recycling. Putting more into the landfill is not going to create a market,’’ Duff said. “It’s not going to accelerate what we need to do.’’
She said that even with recycling there is too much plastic ending up in rivers and oceans and that Mesa needs to play its part in protecting the environment.
Consumers also need to play a role in not buying products that they will use once and throw away, such as bottles of water, Duff said. Consumers can avoid generating plastic bottles by using refillable water bottles, she said
“We need to push for people to make some more conscious choices to avoid these materials,’’ Duff said.
Another everyday example often cited by recycling advocates is to turn down plastic bags at stores and use re-usable bags when possible.
The plastic bags are considered the number one nemesis to recycling because they gum up machinery at plants. Officials recommend recycling the bags by bringing them back to the store where consumers got them.
Giles said he is concerned by the rising costs of recycling, but he is not ready to emulate Surprise. He said he supports the new restrictions to see if they will cut the city’s losses and re-evaluating the costs in about six months.
In six months, the council will need to decide if it wants to increase garbage removal rates by 50 cents per month, per barrel, to compensate for the higher recycling fees, Giles said.
“I am not a fan of the Surprise model. It seems disingenuous,’’ Giles said. “I think we need a new era of recycling. I think eliminating this program is not viable. I think our citizens will not stand for that.’’
Whittaker said he does not object to the city paying $1.5 million in increased costs a year for recycling.
He said it is important not to lose perspective when evaluating the higher recycling costs, noting that the three most profitable city services are water, solid waste and wastewater.
Whittaker said the solid waste service, which includes recycling, returns about a 38 percent profit, despite the higher recycling cost.
“I don’t think we should set the precedent that we should get rid of the program entirely,’’ Whittaker said. “Solid waste is an extremely lucrative business.’’
While water bottles will remain recyclable in Mesa, several other items will not be accepted when the program is “rebranded’’ in the coming weeks.
Bouchie said those banned items include large plastic bottles used for cooking oils, peanut butter jars, yogurt containers and margarine and butter tubs.
Any beverage container will still be accepted, he said – ranging from aluminum cans, which have a high value as a commodity, to glass bottles, which have little or no value.
Another significant change officials are contemplating is to take blue barrels away immediately from customers who throw a large amount of contaminated waste inside them.
Currently, the city gives offenders three chances to clean up their act.
Bouchie said 180 blue barrels have been seized from flagrant offenders and only six asked for them back.
Mesa generates 220,000 to 230,000 tons of solid waste a year that is sent to landfills and 32,000 tons sent to recycling plants. About 30 percent of recyclable materials are either contaminated or lost through the process, Bouchie said.
With the re-branding, another 10,000 to 15,000 tons of recycling may be lost by accepting fewer materials or optimizing the program’s operation in some ways, he said.
But the tradeoff Bouchie anticipates is a significant reduction in costs. He said that overall, the city’s contamination rate is fairly low, with tests ranging from 9.4 percent to 12.8 percent.
The contamination rate is far higher than the Chinese government’s standard of 0.5 percent, which local contractors say they cannot hit and which removed China as a customer for recycling waste, he said.
The three recycling centers, where anyone could drop off trash, had a higher rate of contamination than curbside pickup and tended to attract people who are not Mesa customers, Bouchie said.
The three drop-off centers, all targeted for closure, are at Dobson Ranch Park, Country Club and Juanita and the East Mesa Service Center.