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Henrietta Wildsmith, Shreveport Times
Larissa Koll dutifully rolls out her blue recycling can every other week for Republic Services to pick up.
“We do the water bottles and paper from like the mail and stuff,” she says.
She is environmentally conscious and expects her recyclables to be picked up and eventually recycled.
But in Shreveport and countless other cities around the United States, recycling isn’t always recycling. Just being in the blue can doesn’t mean it will be recycled.
“Everything you put into the bin does not get recycled,” Shreveport Green Executive Director Donna Curtis said. “There are reasons for it.”
To understand recycling here and across America, you have to understand the process.
How it works
Shreveport is contracted with Republic Services to pick up recycled waste. The city pays Republic nearly $2 million per year (2017-2020) and Republic picks up the blue cans with items designated to be recycled.
Republic takes the recyclable items to Pratt Industries at the Port of Shreveport Bossier. Republic pays Pratt a $50 per ton processing fee to unload the material for recycling.
Pratt separates the paper and corrugated cardboard. Both materials must be clean to be recycled at Pratt’s paper mill.
“Our paper mill at the port is so highly tuned things (that aren’t clean) like that clog the works,” Curtis said. “So they have to have good feed for that mill. Corrugated is ideal, but it has to be clean. It can’t have food or grease on it.”
Aluminum cans used for soft drinks and beer are also accepted at Pratt. Similar to the paper and corrugated cardboard, the aluminum cans must be clean.
Steel cans used for soup are also accepted at Pratt. The steel and aluminum cans can be recycled and sold.
There is some debate about how much Pratt does with plastics. Curtis is confident, though, the plant is recycling heavier plastics.
“I have good word and I have faith in Pratt that absolutely one through four (bottles, jugs, heavier plastics) is being bundled,” she said. “They can’t sell it, but they’re giving it to someone who is reusing it, recycling it in some manner.
“I’ve seen it bundled out there. I know they’re doing something with it and it’s not going to the landfill.”
But a lot of what is in the blue can is indeed going to the landfill in DeSoto Parish where Pratt pays $20 per ton to unload.
The reason: A lot of what is being recycled is contaminated and can’t be used by Pratt. Thus, it is sent to the landfill.
This isn’t terribly uncommon. Until 2018, China was a big buyer of the United States’ recyclable waste. But in 2018, that stopped as China determined too much trash came with the recyclables.
Without China to buy the recyclable waste, recycling was transformed into something most consumers didn’t even realize.
— In Philadelphia, China had bought the city’s plastics and cardboard for years, making money for the city. But a price increase last year resulted in Philadelphia selecting some neighborhoods to send their waste to an incinerator and be converted to energy. Other neighborhoods still send their materials to a recycling facility.
— In Bossier City, Renewaste Solutions delivered four, eight-cubic-yard dumpsters for paper and cardboard only. No plastic is accepted currently due to a lack of market for that commodity.
— In Memphis, there are still blue cans in the international airport. But everything that goes into the cans — can, bottle and newspapers — is headed to the landfill.
Related: New proposed Shreveport trash fee: $7. Council debates continue.
Shreveport hasn’t reached that level, but earlier this year there were concerns about the city’s recycling program.
At a City Council work session in February, City Councilman John Nickelson proclaimed, “We don’t really have a recycling program.”
Nickelson’s comment was based on the city not having an agreement with Pratt regarding recycling and not having a mechanism to require Pratt to report what is being done with the single-stream content.
Curtis, though, defends the recycling program.
“We’ve got a great program,” she said. “The first time we picked up for recycling, the participation rate was like 78 percent. That’s off the charts. Everybody was excited. We had been grooming them for this for 18 years. We had a real big push in the media.
“It began dropping as the education and publicity dropped off. We’ve settled around 50 percent, 55 percent. Then recently, with as much as we can do education, it was down to 46 percent which is still in places like our size, that’s good. We have a good return. My concern is what they’re getting out there is contaminated.”
The return number may not be as high 46 percent with some estimating between 20 and 30 percent participating in recycling.
What do you do
Koll is aware that not everything in her blue can is going to be recycled. Yet, she still puts her recyclables in the can every other week.
“You see the stuff printed about what’s really getting recycled and how much it is costing the city,” Koll said. “It kind of makes you wonder. But I’m doing it and they can do what they want with it. At least, I know I’ve done my part.”
There are ways to increase the probability of getting your recyclables actually recycled.
— Don’t put glass in the blue can. There is no place for glass recycling in Shreveport. Don’t even try it.
— Rinse out those aluminum cans and plastic bottles. And if there is a choice, choose aluminum cans over plastic bottles. The market for aluminum cans is much better at the moment than plastic.
— Do put your junk mail, newspapers, magazines and papers in the blue can. Pratt recycles papers.
— Do put your corrugated cardboard in the recycle bin. But make sure it is clean.
There is no guarantee that what you put in the can will be recycled. To Koll, it is better than the alternative.
“At least to me it’s better to put it in there and take a chance and maybe something will happen than deliberately throw it in the trash,” Koll said.
Opinion: Treating litter’s symptoms rather than disease
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