‘Plastic is all around us’: Can Southern Utahns be confident their plastic is actually getting recycled?

ST. GEORGE — Given recent headlines and changes in recycling protocol – whether it has been the removal of the binnies in Iron County at the end of 2019 or the more recent choice to opt out of curbside recycling in Washington County – many might be wondering if recycling is worth it, especially in terms of plastic.

In Washington County, the deadline for residents to opt out of the curbside recycling program is Nov. 30. As previously reported on by St. George News, this option precedes the February 2021 effective date of Washington County Solid Waste Department’s new agreement with Republic Services for trash pick up and recycling.

The rate of pay is on a tiered system over 10 years, though monthly rates vary by city and are dependent upon how many people participate in the program. The more people, the lower the cost.

But how can residents be sure that supposed “recyclable friendlies” will actually end up recycled?

In recent years there has been no shortage of articles showing an ugly side about plastic recycling, including allegations that a large amount of it just ends up in a landfill. China’s National Sword Policy, which tightened its contamination standards in February 2018, further complicated the issue.

More recently, in September, National Public Radio published an article that looked at how “Big Oil” misled the public in believing plastic would be recycled, when in actuality, less than 10% of all produced plastic has ever been recycled. The article stated that the main problem comes down to the fact that producing new plastic is cheap, and most of it was never produced with the intention for it to be recycled.

Plastic recycling presents a ‘unique challenge’

Jeremy Walters, community relations manager of Republic Services in southern Las Vegas, the specific location where the county has been sending its recyclables for about a year, told St. George News that when it comes to recycling plastic, the 10% estimation is not as clear cut as it sounds.

Washington County Solid Waste Department entering into a new 10-year trash pick up and recycling agreement with Republic Services February 2021, St. George, Utah, Oct. 29, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

“When people think about plastic, typically the first thing that jumps to mind is either a water bottle or a plastic bag, but those things are vastly different,” he said, adding that while plastic is a tremendous material, it is also a difficult material with environmental implications.

In some cases – medical materials, for instance – many plastics are made with the understanding that they will end up as hazardous waste.

“So when we start talking about plastic, the reason that number gets so diminished down toward 10% is that not everything that is made of plastic is intended to be recycled from the beginning, and that really is where this unique challenge comes into place.”

Across the United States, plastics with the #1 and #2 symbols – which includes most beverage containers and bathroom products, for example – are typically accepted in curbside recycling programs. Over the last five or so years, there have been some recycling markets that have been experimenting by taking other types of plastic, which then get blended into “337 or mixed plastics,” Walters said.

Yet these blends are challenging as they are taking an assortment of polymers and sizes. Ultimately, Walters said, the market for recycling mixed plastic bottomed out.

“You’ll find that not many people take mixed plastics anymore, which all contributes to that really low recycling rate.”

Unsplash, St. George News

Walters said they track recycled materials at Republic Services by type of material – metal, paper, plastic, et cetera – that is sorted and sent to market. Of the total volume of recyclable materials in 2019 (about 7,200 tons), Walters said plastic contributed to approximately 27% that was sent to market from their facility. Year-to-date for 2020, about 19% of the total volume has been plastic.

“That 27% and that 19% is material that definitely got recycled,” he said. “We don’t unfortunately, characteristically, look at material that is not recyclable …. You’d be amazed to see what comes through that is not recyclable.”

Walters said this includes everything from washing machines and dollhouses to engine blocks. During the holidays, they receive truckloads of Christmas lights and decorations, tinsel, ribbons and gift bows – none of which is recyclable and ends up clogging up the machines.

One of the nonrecyclable plastics they are seeing more frequently are flexible plastics, such as grocery bags and the air-filled pillow packs or bubble wrap satchels that come inside things like Amazon packaging, all of which should instead be turned in at participating grocery or retail stores such as Walmart.

“They actually wrap and tangle around the sorting equipment,” Walters said of the flexible plastics. “They jam the machines. The make it inefficient.”

One of the most unusual items? Bowling balls. Walters said people confuse the idea of “reuse” with “recycling.”

So if they have something that they’ve outgrown or they’re done with but it’s still reusable, they think that by throwing it in the recycling bin, that that company takes that bowling ball, the clothes, the shoes, backpacks, furniture that could still be reusable at a second-hand store, and they think that we’re going to take it to a second-hand store.

Walters said they simply don’t have that capacity.

‘It really starts with the consumer’

“Plastic is all around us,” Walters said, reiterating that a “marginal amount” of plastic is produced with recycling in mind.

The materials, depending on the type, are transported all over the nation, he said.

“All of our plastics – if I’m not mistaken – go down to California,” he said. “We no longer send material to China.”

Some of the material is sent across international borders, but Walters said Republic Services, along with several other recycling companies, made a pact about a year and a half ago to no longer export plastics. While they send plastics to a variety of places, a primary recipient is KW Plastics in California.

Looking toward the future in terms of plastic recycling, Walters said, while he is somewhat optimistic, he also holds pessimistic views and urges a greater awareness at the consumer level.

“It really starts with the consumer,” he said. “The consumer really has so much more authority over these things than they realize. And when they start demanding that manufacturers of goods are responsible with their packaging to begin with, I think that spurs the conversation and creates industry change that better suits everyone in the process.”

Stock image from Unsplash, St. George News

Public perception could also use better awareness, he said. For example, just because a water bottle is recyclable, doesn’t mean that it’s “OK for me to drink three cases of water every week.”

The sustainable option would be to choose a reusable water bottle.

“I think sustainability just needs to start becoming more of a household conversation for it to be a truly optimistic outlook.”

Whether Washington County residents can be certain that their plastic will be recycled, Walters said it would be if they follow the appropriate guidelines – as in, making sure it is recyclable to begin with, then cleaning it out and putting it in the blue receptacle.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “Anything that is placed in the appropriate bin is going to the appropriate place.”

Walters said he has heard of some questionable practices of other recycling places where all material just ends up at the landfill, but when it comes to Republic Services, “it is an absolute standard for us that we do not throw away recyclables.”

While tours of the recycling facility are on hold right now due to COVID-19 restrictions, Walters said they have people from all over the world come to their facility to observe their process. Once they are back open for tours, which could be as early as January, anyone is welcome to schedule a time to tour.

St. George News attempted to contact Recyclops, the northern Utah-based company offering curbside services in Iron County, but as of publication, there hasn’t been a response.

Recycling alliance focuses more on the beginning than the end

David Johnston, co-president of the Utah Recycling Alliance, told St. George News that despite having “recycling” in their name, they recognize that recycling is the last option. It’s not meant to be a perfect solution, he said, adding that the misconception of it being so kicked up around the 1970s and continued for a couple of decades and perpetuated the perception that plastic is inherently recyclable.

Some of this perception was influenced by commercials, as mentioned in the NPR article, such as one commercial produced by Dupont from the 1990s, which illuminates recycling as a sort of magical solution to the problem of plastic, saying that it’s not trash, but “full of potential,” referring to its ability to be recycled into new plastic.

Johnston said the Utah Recycling Alliance’s overall mission is to advocate for zero waste practices through waste reduction.

“If anything, we’re sort of in the process of taking a step back from recycling,” he said. “Not that we don’t see it as an important piece of the puzzle – it absolutely is – but I think the whole idea of being able to generate waste less at the beginning means that you don’t have to find solutions for it as frequently down the line.”

It’s best for consumers to understand all options when it comes to discarding waste |Unsplash, St. George News

The best thing consumers can do when it comes to waste is to understand all available options. Just because plastic bags cannot go into the blue cans, does not mean that they cannot be recycled. There are some companies, Johnston said, that take plastic bags and melt them down to make furniture, such as park benches or picnic tables for parks.

Johnston echoed Walter’s sentiments that it’s also important to understand and follow the exact protocol. Some of the ways the alliance helps to educate people is to go door to door and check inside the blue bins. If contamination is found, they will knock on the door or leave a note about what they found in the bin. If there is consistent contamination, sometimes they will pull the bin for a few days until they get the chance to talk to the people about proper protocol.

At the industrial level, the Prorecycling Group in Salt Lake City, is an industrial regrind facility that grinds down hard-to-recycle plastics, such as curbside recycling bins themselves, automotive parts and large shipping containers, and then ships those across the country to be used in various markets.

Beau Peck, who is the director of marketing and sales for the Prorecycling Group and also serves as the president of the Recycling Coalition of Utah, told St. George News that the hard thing in general is that “people don’t think about trash.”

And now with the pandemic, even more plastic is being produced with the plastic face shields and other medical equipment, and many places that were once plastic-bag free had to start using them again to avoid potential spread of the coronavirus.

“We’re throwing away more plastic and using more plastic than really we ever have,” Peck said.

However, while recycling isn’t a perfect solution and isn’t cheap, Peck said it offers another benefit often not discussed: jobs.

“If we landfill it, the national statistic is we provide the industry with one sustained job, but if we recycle it, we now provide four jobs in the industry,” he said. “Yeah, recycling costs more, but we’re adding more jobs for our community and for the nation. I feel like that’s the most important part of recycling.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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