I’m very curious what the fallout from the China ban of accepting recyclables has been, and if our recyclables in North Texas are now going to landfills. Can you do a follow-up story to see what has changed in the last year?
Curt Riffel of Richardson
I’m wondering if the recycled materials that are picked up in the D/FW Metroplex are really recycled. Or are they simply added to the landfill where our other trash goes?
Beth Ann Black of Coppell
Curt and Beth Ann, this is a marvelous question, especially in light of my Watchdog report in 2018. (“The global recycling market is crashing. This is what it means for you.”) That described China’s decision to stop accepting recyclables and how that would inevitably crash the recycling market here and abroad. China got tired of accepting our dirty waste.
Since then, prices for recycled materials have taken a nose dive, and the market is described as depressed.
A Waste Management memo I saw shows that the average commodities price for all recyclables is about 70% less than the average two years ago.
“Mixed paper has fallen from $88 a ton in 2017 to around zero today in many parts of the country,” the memo states. “Even cardboard prices are the lowest that we’ve ever seen.”
D/FW in good shape
Although some cities across the U.S. have either ended their recycling programs or are looking at massive price hikes to keep them going, we’re in good shape in North Texas. (But don’t be surprised if your city’s monthly trash bill does go up because of this.)
The reason our region is doing better than other places is that we have recycling plants in the areas. And they are working at capacity.
Dallas has a public-private partnership with the McCommas Bluff Landfill’s recycling center in southern Dallas, which handles the city’s recyclables.
Other major trash haulers such as Republic Services and Waste Management have recycling centers in the region, too.
But the recycling market is clearly troubled, mainly because many of us still don’t know how to recycle properly.
Greta J. Calvery, spokesperson for Houston-based Waste Management, told me it’s easy to blame China “but part of this is our issue because we didn’t keep it clean to begin with. If we had sent materials to China that were totally clean, you may not have had this problem.”
Lots of mistakes
When I did that first column in 2018, it changed the way I recycled. I didn’t realize that my family was recycling incorrectly.
How? We were putting whole pizza boxes into the recycle bin, when only the non-greasy side should go. The other half should go into the trash.
Same for milk containers. We were not washing them out completely and putting the cap back on.
And same for those plastic bags we get at grocery stores. Those are not recyclable as part of the weekly trash pickup. They are supposed to be taken back to the stores to special collection bins. But how many of us do that?
Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the “hope recycling” by some of my family members (not me!) who threw items in the bin that they thought should be recycled, but are not – like hoses, electrical cords, used paper towels, food scraps, carpet, shoes, construction materials and batteries.
See, that’s the problem. We contaminate our recyclables with items that shouldn’t be included, and that contaminates the rest of our items, rendering the whole batch useless. I’ve seen stats that one-quarter of all recycling materials picked up are wrong. We have a long way to go.
Collin County tried
Consider the results from the failed Collin County experiment.
Around a decade ago, the county received a grant to help set up 11 recycling collection sites serving small towns and unincorporated areas that didn’t have big-city styled trash haulers.
The program was halted around the same time that China declared the ban.
“The market dried up,” says Jon Kleinheksel, the county’s public works director.
Users had turned the sites into illegal dumps, he said.
“People would throw everything in there,” he said. “We’d find dead animals in there.”
Ninety-nine percent of what was collected was ruined, he said, by items that contaminated the collections.
The program was losing $150,000 a year before it was killed in 2018.
Dallas apartment program
Want some good recycling news? Dallas’ mandatory recycling program for apartments with eight units or more launched Jan. 1. Landlords must detail their program when they annually register with the city.
About half of the city’s residents live in apartments.
The program is mandatory, but so far, no one has been cited in violation, city spokesperson Danielle McClelland said.
Residents who want to inquire about the service can call 311 or visit DallasRecycles.com.
“Recycling access for apartment residents is a basic service that should be universal across D/FW, especially as its population grows,” says Kevin Richardson, DFW Waste Organizer for the Texas Campaign for the Environment.
Recycling has become a key part of the Texas economy, says Jordan Fengel who leads State of Texas Alliance for Recycling. We’re talking about 17,000 jobs, generating $3 billion a year, including almost $200 million annually in taxes.
Don’t forget the 125 state businesses that use recyclable items, and the 10 million tons of recyclables that don’t make it into our landfills.
The next big trend in the recycling market should come when manufacturers of items we buy change up. Single-use products that end up in the trash can be replaced with materials that can be reused.
We need to slow down our throw-away culture.
Sidebar: Learn how to recycle properly.
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The Dallas Morning News Watchdog column is the 2019 winner of the top prize for column writing from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. The contest judge called his winning entries “models of suspenseful storytelling and public service.”
Read his winning columns:
* Helping the widow of Officer J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, get buried beside her late husband
* Helping a waitress who was harmed by an unscrupulous used car dealer