By Jane Bias and Neal Denton
Until recently, China purchased much of the world’s recycled materials, using them as a supply for their manufacturing industries. Many recycling brokers, particularly on the West Coast of the United States, relied on the Chinese market to sell commodities. In July 2017, the Chinese government imposed many new constraints on imported recycling materials in an effort to clean up its own environment. The changes limited renewals of import licenses, banned 24 types of waste, and imposed strong restrictions on recycling commodity imports. It reduced the acceptable contamination levels of incoming materials to 0.5 percent, much lower than the previously accepted 5.0 percent, an industry–accepted standard set by ISRI (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries). These policy changes have been extraordinarily consequential for recycling programs across the U.S., including the City of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County.
In addition to China’s new policy making U.S. recycling exports difficult and costly, the lack of domestic U.S. markets for recycling is now enormously apparent. Different regions of the U.S. are responding to this crisis in varying ways: Some states have focused on developing local markets, while areas like the Southeast already have access to more domestic processors and are somewhat insulated from global market fluctuations. The far West region has depended strongly on the Chinese market. While certainly a challenging transition, the recycling and manufacturing industries in these regions now have an opportunity to develop new domestic markets. There is hope that ultimately the current disruption will lead to stronger U.S. markets, supplying new green–collar jobs and a reduction of the U.S. carbon footprint.
For several years, the recycling processor for the City of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County has been Friedman Recycling of Albuquerque, LLC. The Friedman contract is with Santa Fe Solid Waste Management Agency (SFSWMA). For many years, Friedman has sold most commodities to China. Since China’s policy changes, Friedman slowed its sorting lines and nearly doubled the number of workers in an effort to meet China’s new contamination standards. In doing so, they are removing more trash, along with some recyclables, from Santa Fe’s recycled materials stream. An audit of Friedman in mid-April showed 25.3 percent of material in Santa Fe’s recyclables were removed as residuals and deemed waste. The top contaminants were plastic film/bags; tanglers (ropes, cords, chains and garden hoses); food waste, and green waste.
Many of these items end up in recyclables through “wishful recycling.” Wishful recycling—putting items into our recycling stream that are recycled elsewhere, but not in our community—contaminates the loads and is counter to our efforts. Just because an item has a recycling symbol on it does not mean it is recyclable in Santa Fe or that someone along the way will find a way to recycle it. Conversely, those items turn a load of the community’s recyclables into trash. So how can we work together to make our recyclables better and cleaner? Say YES to the following:
- Keep trash out of recyclable carts and trailers.
- DO NOT bag recyclables except shredded white printer paper in clear bags.
- If it is smaller than a postcard, it is not recyclable (clogging up sorting equipment and being missed by human pickers on the sort lines
- Lightly rinse or soak thoroughly all recyclables before placing them in carts and trailers.
All major cities in New Mexico, along with El Paso, Texas, depend on Friedman for their single-stream programs. These cities are now focusing their messaging on “Recycling Right” to reduce contamination and wishful recycling. Recycling Right means knowing what is recycled in our city drop-off recycling centers, county convenience centers, Buckman Road Recycling and Transfer Station, and what is picked up by private waste haulers chosen by county residents.
Recycling Right means making choices to seek out products with less packaging, and this includes groceries.
Beyond bulk–food–product packaging, food waste is a leading contaminant in Santa Fe’s recyclables. According to the EPA, food is 14.9 percent of waste generation and 21.6 percent of waste disposal in landfills. Compare that to glass, which is 5 percent of waste generation. In the U.S., we waste enough food to fill 750 football stadiums every year. Reduce your food waste by planning meals. Look at recipes. Create a meal plan for the week, and only buy things you need for those meals. If you have tried your best, and you are not going to be able to eat your food before the end of its life, donate it to a local food bank. Forty-nine million people live in food–insecure households in the U.S., meaning there are times each year when they do not know if they will have enough to eat.
If the food is not fit for human consumption, find a local farmer who could use it as animal feed. Visit with farmers at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. For items that could not be consumed or donated, such as coffee grounds, consider creating a valuable soil amendment by making compost. Regardless of the size or type of your residence, there is a system that could work for you. If you have a yard, you can use something as simple as 10 feet of wire fencing to create a 3-foot diameter compost bin. If you do not have a yard, you can purchase indoor, odor-free composting bins. A limited number of customers of Santa Fe County Solid Waste Convenience Centers will be selected for a pilot project in which a backyard- or indoor composting system will be installed free of charge.
Working together in our community, we all can make a difference in helping to reduce waste and recycle right and cleaner. Start with reducing consumption, packaging and waste; add reducing food waste or composting it. Repurposing items at home or donating to organizations and community members in need is another simple choice to make; and, finally, begin to recognize and curtail wishful recycling. Let’s rethink our waste by recycling right for and in our community.
Jane Bias is a staff member of SFSWMA, a division of the City of Santa Fe’s Environmental Services Division. Neal Denton is with Santa Fe County’s Sustainability Division. Contact Denton for technical assistance to establish a residential composting system. 505.992.9832, firstname.lastname@example.org