Staff Columnist

We messed up, so recycling faces a turning point

A pile of recyclables awaits sorting at City Carton Recycling on Monday, April 19, 2010, in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A pile of recyclables awaits sorting at City Carton Recycling on Monday, April 19, 2010, in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

So your columnist must now, on the record, admit to being guilty of “aspirational recycling.”

What was I thinking? I’ll let Alicia Simmons, sustainability manager for Frontier Co-op, explain.

“I’m not 100 percent sure whether it’s recyclable or not, so I’ll throw it in anyway because someone will pull it out down the line if it’s not. I’m sure it will end up in the right place,” Simmons explained during an Iowa Ideas Conference panel I moderated last week.

“It comes from a good place. But it makes the whole process inefficient, ineffective and incredibly expensive,” said Simmons, whose company, maker of organic spices and other products, is working overtime to make its packaging environmentally friendly while also trying to educate us on how to properly recycle it.

We messed up, but we meant well. Our communities invested in technology and labor that allowed us to throw all of our recycling into a single bin. So convenient. So easy being green. But then we also tossed in what’s basically trash, hoping it also would get recycled.

The fact we trashed our recycling stream is one big reason China announced in 2017 it would stop buying mountains of America’s recycled plastics, decimating a critical market for recycled material.

“It’s full of garbage,” said Alan Schumacher, director of development for Quincy Recycle in Marion and president of the Iowa Recycling Association. He said after China’s move, efforts to ship recycled material to other nations, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea and India, also hit road blocks.

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“They want us to separate our own junk here. I don’t blame them,” Schumacher said.

That market disruption has led to a “glut” of recycled material. “We’re not in a really good situation right now,” Schumacher said.

So the recycling industry has reached a turning point, forced by the laws of supply and demand. Demand now is demanding we separate our clean recyclables and subtract the trash. The convenient “single stream” recycling we’ve enjoyed is no longer a sustainable model.

The worst alternative is what’s happening across the country in communities and public facilities that have abandoned recycling for a trip to the landfill. That hasn’t happened yet in Iowa, Schumacher said.

Instead, we can take our cues from West Liberty Foods, which is a certified “landfill free” company that dutifully separates its clean recyclable waste to make it more marketable.

“Was it easy? No, it’s hard because you’re changing a culture,” said Michele Boney, the company’s director of environmental health and safety. “People really want to do the right thing. Instead of one garbage can, you have nine.”

“I don’t think single stream is the answer anymore. And I think that’s going to be going away, that’s my take on it,” Boney said.

Boney said her company has saved $1 million not hauling waste to the landfill.

But even West Liberty foods is facing challenges marketing its recyclables. A recycling industry that once relied on overseas markets now rests its hopes on the development of domestic destinations for materials.

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“I think the United States needs to be better at bringing more facilities here that can use these post-consumer recyclables and make products out of them. That’s one thing we don’t have a lot of and that’s why we’re shipping this to China and other places,” Boney said. “This is just something we need to do as a country. Use our own waste.”

Colorado is using incentives to attract firms to the state that will buy and use recycled material, Boney said. Schumacher pointed to the Chinese paper company Nine Dragons, which is retrofitting American mills and could be a destination for recycled fiber. So there are rays of hope on the horizon.

“We’ve always been a country of adapting, so we’re going to have to adapt,” Schumacher said. “Whether government dictates it or millennials start demanding it. I hope they do.”

But changing markets and processes only takes us so far.

“This whole mind-set of one-time use products is, frankly never, ever going to be sustainable,” Simmons said, as I looked down uneasily at my foam coffee cup. “It’s getting people to think differently about their decisions every single day.”

It means abandoning my misguided aspirations. And remembering to bring a travel mug.

Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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