As recycling costs continue to increase, more municipalities across the U.S. are minimizing their recycling programs, and Katy and Fulshear are no exception.

“I thought it was just a Katy-specific issue with our contractor,” Katy Mayor Pro Tem Chris Harris said. “The whole recycling world—everywhere is having some of the same issues we are.”

Katy increased its monthly recycling service rate from $3.57 to $4.44, about a 24% increase, effective Nov. 30. The change was in response to a request from David Aguilar—the municipal services manager at Republic Services, the city’s solid waste and recycling provider—who said it was due to international policy changes.

Because glass is one of the more costly factors in recycling, Katy and Fulshear stopped accepting glass as a recyclable item in September and October, respectively.

Not recycling glass will make landfills fill up faster and potentially need expansion, which would likely be covered by taxpayer dollars since very few landfills are run by private companies, said Jordan Fengel, the executive director of the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling.

“If we need to expand it, that’s your money going to put stuff in the ground,” Fengel said. “If we recycle more and keep stuff out of the landfill, not only do you generate jobs, but you save tax dollars.”

China’s role

Changes in quality requirements from China and the drop in global demand for recyclables means it is costing more to recycle than manufacturers are willing to pay for the materials, Fengel said. This makes it difficult for cities to regain the cost of curbside services.

In the past, cities in the U.S. exported recyclable paper and plastic to China for processing. But in January 2018, China banned imports of all but the cleanest, most high-grade materials by imposing a 99.5% purity standard that many countries struggle to meet.

Examples of recycling contamination include: when incorrect materials are put into the recycling bin, when correct items are put in the bin while still having food or residue in containers and when recyclables are in plastic bags. He added glass bottles sometimes have remnants that contaminate other materials, too.

Fulshear’s contamination rate ranges from 26.5% to 31%, according to city officials. Katy’s contamination rates were not provided by the city nor Republic Services.

“Recycling is super dirty,” Fengel said. “The issue is we don’t recycle correctly. China isn’t buying [impure recyclables], the markets are collapsing, and now we have a huge problem with rate increases.”

In 2017, China was importing roughly 1.3 million tons of recyclables each year. As of 2018, the country is only importing 70,000 tons, a 94% decrease. Imports to other Asian countries, including Malaysia, Thailand and India, have increased to make up for the shortfall, but those countries are closing their ports and shipping materials back to their originating countries because of high contamination rates, according to a Republic Services report.

About 1 in 4 items put into recycling bins across Texas is not recyclable, according to a 2017 study on the economic impacts of recycling in Texas conducted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“The contamination percentage at 0.5% is too low to be viable for exporters as they would take a loss on cleaning the product,” said Nikolas Zelinski, a spokesperson for the California-based End of Waste Foundation, which aims to increase recycling. “Most material sent to China was mixed together and not considered valuable enough to be manually sorted, cleaned and processed for reuse.”

The Chinese landscape and environment were suffering by accepting lower-grade waste materials mixed with recyclables, he said.

Recycling at home

Individuals directly increase the cost of recycling by placing items that do not belong in the recycle bin, Fengel said.

Waste Corporation of America, Fulshear’s solid waste and recycling provider, performed a recycling audit in July, and a total of 262 pounds was broken out, or recycled improperly: 22.8 pounds of glass, 17.3 pounds with residue or contamination, 23.4 pounds made nonrecoverable by residue, and 31.1 pounds of plastic bags with residue.

“The cost to recycle has gone up in spite of dropping glass from the program,” Fulshear’s Chief Financial Officer Wes Vela said. “The cost to recycle has increased because of the contamination rate associated with the program.”

Vela said the city will focus on more education to help mitigate and possibly reduce costs in the future.

“Contamination is a huge issue,” Fengel said. “We’ve seen everything from cow skulls to bowling balls to propane tanks. People throw whatever in the recycling cart and think, ‘If I put it in there, someone will figure it out.’ Nope. No one will.”

Contamination leads to higher costs to sort, clean and process material to sell to buyers, Fengel said. When residents are not careful about the materials they put in their recycling bins, it becomes more difficult for municipalities to collect recycling and maintain recycling programs.

Fulshear and Katy have adopted single-stream recycling, also known as curbside, in which community members put all recyclable items in one bin without having to sort it.

Fengel said glass becomes a contaminant when it is mixed with paper and plastic, and it devalues or detracts from the value of certain commodities. By separating glass and not allowing cross-contamination, it adds value to those who collect it.

“The general notion is that it is too hard to teach everyone [how to recycle properly],” Fengel said. “That’s not true. There are cities going back to [allowing residents to separate their own recyclables].”

Keeping recycling alive

Fengel said it is important for the U.S. to be self-reliant in reprocessing materials as it is an economic driver for municipalities, regional governments, state governments and nations.

“Your dollar is your loudest voice,” Fengel said. “Be a responsible purchaser and buy stuff that has recycled content. That tells manufacturers that you are looking at what they use and sends a message to use more. The more recyclable material that gets put into these other items, it is a better business for the recycling industry.”

Recycling employs 17,000 people in Texas and provides a $3.3 billion in economic impact revenue, he said.

Republic Industries reported infrastructure improvements are needed to make up for China, which previously took in 60% of plastic waste exports from G7 countries. Additionally, it recommended increasing public education to lower contamination rates.

Fengel, along with others, lobbied to pass Texas Senate Bill 649, aimed to promote the use of recyclable materials as feedstock for processing and manufacturing, and the bill received $500,000 in funding.

A report will be available by September 2020, and the entire market development plan for the recycling industry by the state of Texas will be due to the governor and legislators in September 2021.

At the Sept. 16 Fulshear City Council meeting, city staff agreed to work closely with WCA on an education campaign to find ways to keep residents informed on how to properly dispose of their trash.

As the amount of improperly recycled material decreases, everyone in the city will benefit, and the residents of Fulshear will know they are recycling the proper way, WCA Waste Municipal Sales Manager Trevor Royal said.

Republic Industries recommended increasing public education to lower contamination rates and increase commodity values.

The board managing Keep Katy Beautiful oversees projects and events including the biannual citywide garage sales to help promote reduce, reuse, recycle and rebuy.

In 2020, KKB will start an educational speaker series, and the first speaker subject will be recycling, said Jess Washburn, Katy’s tourism and marketing assistant. The series will be a quarterly event.

Additional reporting by Alex Hosey.