Recycling fees to rise slightly after China ban on ‘dirty’ recyclables

ARLINGTON – Not to be a Grinch, but if you’re in the habit of squeezing your gift-wrapping paper, ribbons and bows into a big ball after Christmas and dropping it in your blue recycling bin, think again.

The gift wrap alone may be fine if it’s glitter-free and intact, but the sticky glue on bows is a contaminant and ribbons are “tanglers” notorious for snagging in machinery that separates naughty recyclables from nice for reuse.

Lack of consumer knowledge about what can and can’t be recycled and how clean it should be is challenging at any time of year, but no more so than during Christmas when boxes, packaging and holiday rubbish overstuff bins and garbage cans.

That failure of people to be more prudent and responsible in their recycling habits is at the root of a recycling crisis brought on by China’s “National Sword” initiative enacted earlier this year, which significantly limits the recyclable materials the country will accept from foreign nations.

That’s shaking the market for recyclables, and raising operations costs in the solid waste industry that are being passed through to customers, along with a redoubled education campaign to teach customers how to avoid recycling contamination.

“There have been some trade issues with China, and the Chinese government is refusing to take our recyclable materials,” Arlington Public Works Director Jim Kelly told the City Council Monday. “There is a problem with the quality of our materials, a lot of contamination. This is having an impact on all of Washington state, as well as other states.”

As a result, Washington residents may see changes in what they can recycle, or other changes in their local recycling programs. In the short term, more recyclables are likely to go to the landfill because no markets are available.

The City Council Monday approved a rate increase sought by Waste Management NW. Residential customers currently paying $7.53 will pay 68 cents more per month, or $8.21, for recycling as part of their garbage collection service, while the rate for multi-family collection on, for example, a 1-yard container, will increase $1 per month from $91.60 to $92.60.

By comparison, Marysville saw their single-family rate increase 73 cents per month from $4.79 to $5.52.

Americans recycle about 66 million tons of material each year, ranging from paper to scrap metal. Washington, like many of its West Coast neighbors, has particularly high recycling rates, with 4 million tons of waste recycled in 2015, according to the state Department of Ecology.

If the community doesn’t do it right, costs for recycling will continue to rise.

Robin Freedman, senior manager with Waste Management, said the worldwide recycling market is always fluctuating. Historically, China was the major player. But in 2013 it tightened restrictions, and in 2017 tightened them even more. More recently, it has basically banned importing recyclables, she said.

So, the U.S. is looking to other smaller markets that are less developed, such as Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Chile. There is hope some U.S. markets may develop, but “It will take other markets time to mature,” Freedman said.

Jackie Lang, Waste Management spokeswoman, said, “All we hear is people tired of hearing about China. They want to know, ‘What can I do?’”

Waste Management’s Hannah Scholes has answers.

The recycling outreach manager said the rule of thumb for recyclables is “Empty, clean and dry,” and “When in doubt, throw it out.” In the regular garbage, in other words, not the recycling bin.

With cardboard boxes and gift boxes, flatten them down for recycling, and toss Stryofoam and bubble wrap packaging in the garbage.

Scholes also said disposable paper products for serving food become contaminated and greasy, so should be garbage-bound.

“Tanglers” are high on Scholes naughty list. Stretchable materials such as plastic shopping bags, ribbons, old Christmas lights are garbage, so keep them out of recycling because they wreak havoc on conveyor belts and are a safety hazard, she said.

She encouraged people to reduce and reuse applicable items whenever possible before even thinking of recycling.

Lang said the end goal is working toward an efficient, cost-effective system.

“We’re in this together; anything you can do benefits everybody,” she said.

If there is an upside to the recycling crisis, it’s that it hit people in the pocketbook, and that’s the kind of pain that can change household habits.

“We have people’s attention now, and that gives us a chance to improve the system for years to come,” Lang said.

City officials are working with Waste Management on an education campaign that will start in January, Kelley said.

The increase will take effect in January.

For more recycling information, visit the Waste Management-Arlington website at wmnorthwest.com/arlington.

12 ways of recycling – Christmas and year-round

* Keep holiday ribbons and bows out of the recycling bin – reuse them if you can, or toss them in the garbage.

* Sheets of wrapping paper after opening gifts is okay for the bin, but not any pieces postcard-sized or smaller.

* Holiday string lights belong in the standard garbage, not recycling.

* Too often ignored, but plastic shopping bags do not go in the recycling bin; they jam up conveyor belts at recycling facilities. They’re trouble – that’s why some cities impose bag bans or a fee. Reuse them or put them in the garbage.

* Don’t bag or box recyclables. Clean and empty, and keep them separated for easy sorting.

* Clean paper and cardboard goes in recycling, but flatten it out first, then toss Styrofoam, packing peanuts and bubble wrap packaging in the garbage.

* No shredded paper. It’s too difficult to sort.

* Clean and rinse paper food containers, cups and juice cartons, but leave the caps out of the bin.

* Clean glass bottles and jars (no caps or lids; labels OK.)

* Clean plastic containers, such as plastic bottles, cups, jars, jugs and tubs.

* There is no limit on clean recyclables. Put recycling that doesn’t fit in your cart in cardboard boxes or a 32-gallon can with handles marked “recycling”.

* Christmas trees can be donated at curbside to groups such as the Boy Scouts, or put them in your yard waste toter and cut to a size that allow the lid to close. Remove tinsel, ornaments and other contaminants.

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