Since China banned imports of most plastics and other recycled materials from the U.S. in 2018, cities and towns have been scrambling to figure out how to process a massive amount of recyclables — and it’s costing them a lot of money.
In North Carolina, cities like Lincolnton, Greensboro and Pinebluff have discontinued or limited their curbside recycling programs due to cost or contamination from food waste or trash. While Durham has lost money due to the ban, the city hasn’t changed what material it accepts or limited pick-ups and has weathered the changes relatively well.
Recyclables are still picked up from residential curbsides, sorted, packaged and transported to Raleigh, where Sonoco Recycling — the company the city contracts with — processes and sells the materials to places like steel mills and glass processors.
Recently, though, the coronavirus pandemic has strained Durham’s recycling system even more. Sonoco’s operations have slowed, and the city’s recycling budgets have taken a hit.
Despite the challenges, and the expectations that next year could cost the city more money, Durham still plans to invest in its recycling program to keep it afloat. City officials say they’re also interested in more programs to reduce waste in general.
“We want to encourage residents to be environmentally responsible,” said Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson.
Industry ebbs and flows
Durham picks up an average of 1,450 tons of recycled items from curbsides each month. The recycling industry has its ups and downs every few years depending on who buys the materials, according to Wayne Fenton, assistant director of solid waste operations for the city of Durham.
In 2019, Johnson told 9th Street Journal that the city was able to foot the cost of recycling because of millions of dollars in budget surpluses from property taxes and tourism increases. “There’s definitely some wiggle room in the budget,” she said at the time.
Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, tourism and sales taxes decreased and that wiggle room was lost.
“We are anticipating revenue shortfalls now, due to COVID,” Johnson said in June.
Durham has seen a net expense of about $472,000 from recycling so far this fiscal year — a loss that officials expect to worsen because China’s scrap import ban is expected to go into full effect by the end of 2020.
Brian Risinger, director of corporate communications and investor relations at Sonoco, said that while Sonoco Recycling and Durham were losing money from recycling services before the pandemic, it has stressed the market even more.
“The business model across the United States has been built around selling collected material into some kind of aftermarket, with the idea that if the material was in demand and commanded a certain value it would offset the cost for municipalities to run recycling programs and cover the costs of operations for companies like Sonoco,” he said in an email. “Now you add COVID-19 into the mix.”
Recyclables can be a form of profit for the city, depending on demand for certain materials like glass or plastic.
For instance, Jim Reingruber, assistant director for the budgeting side of Durham solid waste management, said the value of some materials has improved during the pandemic. Since people are ordering more deliveries instead of going out, cardboard has “really seen a big increase in value,” he said.
The National Waste and Recycling Association has stated that as waste piles up, recycled materials will need to be diverted into landfills. But Durham officials don’t want that to happen. Fenton said the city is incentivized to keep recycling because Durham pays $42.50 for every ton of trash thrown in the landfill.
“I always remind everybody that we lose money when we put trash in the ground,” Fenton said. “So when it goes to the landfill, that’s not free.”
Protecting sanitation workers
While their overall operations haven’t changed much during the pandemic, parts of Durham’s recycling system have felt the effects. The city and Sonoco say they are trying to keep workers safe. Sanitation workers are essential frontline workers during the pandemic and at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
Fenton said he is not aware of any reported COVID-19 cases within the curbside pick up crews in Durham. However, it has been an issue in the state: The NC Public Service Workers Union said in March that union members were concerned for their safety and health after a Raleigh sanitation worker died from complications related to COVID-19.
The city has taken some precautions, including restricting the size of materials picked up curbside to limit the number of sanitation workers in a truck at once. They’ve also limited the number of vehicles out collecting at a time and have provided masks and gloves to all employees, Fenton said.
Risinger said that Sonoco has dedicated a significant amount of time, communication and training to employees to ensure hand washing, social distancing and consistent use of personal protective equipment.
“Very early on as a company we adopted CDC and World Health Organization guidelines with respect to worker safety and operations across our entire global organization,” Risinger said.
A waste-free vision for the future
Even with some economic losses for the city, Johnson said that “moving away from funding recycling services would be the wrong choice environmentally.”
But she is open to supporting circular economy projects, which include reusable to-go containers or the redistribution of recyclable materials directly back to retailers. Johnson highlighted one pilot project, The ReCirculation Project with nonprofit Don’t Waste Durham, which, according to its website, hopes to prove “that an entirely new kind of recycling is possible” by running a system that sanitizes recyclable materials and reuses them as they are, rather than running them through a processing plant to repurpose them.
The organization has also been working with restaurants and Durham schools to push “Green to Go” container systems that reduce waste by encouraging people to use plastic to-go containers when dining out. Duke University officially rolled out a similar program last year.
Johnson noted that the next step would be additional research to figure out how something like this could be scaled city-wide. She also reiterated that the city plans to prioritize recycling for the foreseeable future.
“I would say there are opportunities to look at circular economy initiatives that might help save some money and some recyclables from going into the waste stream,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that will cancel our recycling program; I think that there would be a lot of other things on the chopping block before we get to that point.”
Top photo: A recycling bin in downtown Durham. Photo by Henry Haggart.
9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.