recyclables City of Mesa

Too many loads of recyclables are contaminated by items that should be dumped in garbage bins.

Mesa plans to immediately remove the blue recycling barrels of customers who use them to dump obviously contaminated materials – including animal and human waste as well as dangerous or hazardous waste.

The tougher policy will go before the city council for approval on Monday, Nov. 18, after the Environmental Management and Sustainability Department decided it needs to crack down on people who treat the blue barrels like the black garbage ones.

The code change would reverse the more lenient three-strikes approach for extreme offenders only. 

Customers who make only minor mistakes with the blue bins by throwing a plastic bag or a dirty peanut butter jar into one would be allowed two such infractions before their blue barrel is seized for a third offense.

If a customer has his or her blue barrel seized, it would cost an extra $13.85 per month for a minimum of six months to add a second black trash barrel.

Even such seemingly minor errors can spoil an otherwise acceptable load of recycling materials. 

China more than a year ago drastically reduced the contamination levels of recyclables it receives from the U.S.

That policy decision has put the squeeze on cities throughout the U.S. – including Mesa. 

They are now forced to find other ways to get rid of recyclables, turning what had once been a cash cow into a new municipal expense.

Some cities in Arizona, including Surprise and Casa Grande, have responded by terminating their recycling programs while others, notably Phoenix, are pondering the imposition of monthly fees on residents to support their recycling efforts.

Mesa’s list of items that will still be accepted is also shrinking. 

People will only be allowed to recycle jugs and bottles used for beverages, highly valuable aluminum cans and less valuable glass bottles, tin food cans, cardboard and newspapers and paper. 

“When in doubt, leave it out,’’ the department advises on its web site.

 The two most critical questions are whether the container comes from a beverage and whether it is a bottle, jug or can.

The crackdown is part of an effort to rebrand and save Mesa’s recycling program by focusing on collecting fewer items to cut costs and contamination.

China is limiting contamination to .05 percent, and the prices paid for recyclable materials are falling.

While Mesa is trying to avoid charging residents more for recycling or eliminating recycling altogether, both of those approaches have been proposed in Phoenix along with cutting recycling to every two weeks.

Recycling contracts now typically feature a handling fee, with the city receiving a cut from payments for materials. The end result is that recycling, formerly a revenue generator has turned into an annual cost of about $1.5 million for Mesa.

The council discussed a potential 50 cents per barrel per month price increase about a month ago but decided to cut back on the 25-year-old recycling program instead to see if a price increase can be eliminated. 

Mayor John Giles rejected the possibility of eliminating the recycling program at that time, saying he did not think the public would tolerate it because of interest in sustainability.

 Councilman Kevin Thompson floated that idea, but he received no support from other council members. Councilwoman Jen Duff said consumers need to consider not accepting plastic bags in supermarkets and refilling plastic water bottles instead of buying more.

“There’s no need for the city to pay unnecessary processing fees for items that would never be accepted, and end up in the landfill because it was not accepted,’’ said Mariano Reyes, a Mesa solid waste spokesman.

“The industry has changed and we have less of a cushion to tolerate contamination,’’ he said.

Examples from the long list of items that may be technically recyclable but no longer will be accepted by Mesa include plastic soap bottles, laundry detergent bottles and dish detergent bottles.

Plastic food jars, paper bags, yogurt and margarine tubs, and plastic and paper cups all make list of banned items because they tend to be contaminated, even if some have a recycling symbol on them.

“Contamination is identified through random recycle barrel inspections to ensure program compliance. Recent recycle barrel inspections have indicated an increased use of the recycle barrel for the purposes of solid waste disposal,’’ according to a council report.

Blue barrels are getting inspected more often as a part of Mesa’s contamination crackdown. 

Hence, it is difficult for inspectors to tell if some of Mesa’s 120,000 customers are abusing the blue barrels more often or if they are just noticing it more often, Reyes said.

“In some cases, it does get a lot worse. They may see it more often. We are really inspecting the barrels,’’ he said.

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