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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane might start picking up recycling half as much. Here’s what that would look like

The cost of its recycling program has evolved from negligible to eyebrow-raising over the last decade, leading the city to rethink recycling.

On Monday, the Spokane City Council will vote on a proposal to cut the frequency of recycling collection in half, from weekly to biweekly, in an effort to reduce the cost of a program that once brought in almost as many dollars as it cost to run.

The challenges are not unique to Spokane, or even the Northwest, but are still forcing local officials to weigh their options.

The change would buy the city time, but a long-term solution is unclear, according to City Council President Breean Beggs.

“It’s all in flux,” he said.

The question is no longer whether the city will lose money on recycling, but how much?

Still, city officials and Waste Management, which sorts the city’s recyclables, see value in forging ahead despite the complexity.

Recycling will be relevant as long as there’s a company that wants to reuse a cardboard box, or a clothing manufacturer that can make a fleece vest from recycled plastics, argued Matt Stern, director of Recycling Operations in the Pacific Northwest for Waste Management.

“Recycling has environmental and sustainability benefits. There’s absolutely no question that there’s a higher and better use for this material,” Stern said.

Waste Management has worked to combat the “common myth and misconception” that materials aren’t recycled.

“We’ve never had to intentionally take material that was separated for recycling and landfill it,” Stern said “The idea somehow that the system, as part of the normal course of businesses, landfills properly prepared material, is just not true for Waste Management. That’s not the way we do business.”

Even when the market dramatically shifted, Stern said the company warehoused massive amounts of recycled material rather than dump it in a landfill.

The system

Sending crews to collect recycling from Spokane curbsides every week isn’t cheap, nor is processing it.

Spokane pays Waste Management, which operates the regional Spokane Materials and Recycling Technology (SMaRT) Center, to process the mix of recyclables the city collects in a single bin in front of some 70,000 residences and businesses. In 2019, the city collected about 61,000 tons of trash and 21,000 tons of recycling.

From its $18 million facility built in 2012, Waste Management sorts the materials and sells them on the open market. The proceeds go to the city, but Waste Management is paid for sorting the recyclables and essentially acting as its commodities broker.

Waste Management has a department of brokers who facilitate the sale of recycled materials to a broad array of buyers, according to Stern.

“I believe 100% of the material at the SMaRT center stays domestic,” Stern said, other than the few times “when the domestic markets for paper are unable to take our material, times when we have to export.”

As the largest recycler in North America, buyers come to Waste Management, Stern said, and “we don’t necessarily have to find them.”

The cost

For a time, that system sustained itself. But no longer.

To elucidate the conundrum, city officials pointed to its July bill from Waste Management. In that month, the city earned a profit from some recyclables, like aluminum products, that Waste Management was able to unload. But it was not enough to offset the losses the city took on mixed plastics and glass, for which there is relatively little demand.

After covering Waste Management’s fees, the city ultimately lost $128,000 on recycling in July, a figure that excludes the cost of labor, equipment, and other investments the city makes in curbside pickup.

The city projects it will lose $1.4 million in 2020 on recycling.

Spokane is one of countless cities in North America that has struggled to find profitable buyers for its recyclables since China adopted its National Sword Policy in 2018, setting strict standards for the contamination of plastics and reducing the number of materials that can be imported.

The policy has upended the traditional recycling market, which leaned on China as a reliable buyer for just about anything.

In the year following China’s implementation of the new policy, its plastics imports dropped by 99%, according to Yale E360, a publication of the Yale School of the Environment.

China, Stern noted, was the world’s largest consumer of recycled material.

“When they got out of the market, there were a lot of impacts. The economic shift and just the physical changes was a real disruption, and so the markets for recyclables have adjusted,” Stern said.

Falling on the Sword

Facing unprecedented losses, the city weighed two options: charge customers more or cut back service.

It chose the latter.

If the council signs off Monday, recycling collection will move to an every-other-week schedule. Regular solid waste will still be collected every week. Customers who need to upsize their 64-gallon recycling cart will be allowed to do so, but the city expects the current blue bins will be enough to last most customers two weeks.

Though it may seem insignificant – it’s not a reduction in service, just in the frequency of it – the change is projected to save the city about $900,000 annually with the new schedule, which would be implemented until sometime in 2021.

Savings would come from reduced capital expenses, but also trimming city staff by about seven people, according to city spokeswoman Marlene Feist. The cuts would be made through attrition, not layoffs.

But the shift wouldn’t rule out other changes. The city may have to decide whether it’s willing to continue to absorb losses or find creative ways to lessen the blow.

Single stream

With the market in turmoil, the city has been forced to ask new questions. Like, if Spokane loses money on glass bottles, why try to recycle them at all?

For one, there’s nowhere else to put them.

If glass makes its way into the garbage system, it could harm the machinery at the city’s Waste-to-Energy plant, which does exactly what its name implies – generate electricity from incinerating solid waste.

“The wear and tear on the machinery because of the glass could cost more than the extra fees,” said Kristine Major, education coordinator for the City of Spokane and the Spokane County Regional Solid Waste System.

Glass is a perfect example of the recycling market’s complexity, Stern said.

There’s a single company in Washington, on the West Side, that makes new bottles from recycled glass. But that single company’s demand is finite, and its supplier is local.

“They’re sourcing all they can use from the most populated part of the state, which is the Puget Sound, so that leaves Spokane without a market,” Stern said.

The cost of making new glass bottles from raw materials is not prohibitively high, Stern added.

“And there’s not a large demand for recycled bottles. The combination limits the market options,” Stern said.

The alternative – tossing glass in the trash – would “cost twice as much, and it doesn’t create energy” at Spokane’s trash incinerator, Stern argued.

If losses on glass remain steep, and it finds a cheaper solution, the city may eventually ask residents to separate it from other recycled materials.

Currently, glass is processed at the SMaRT Center and repurposed for a variety of uses, including construction projects such as roadways. Ideally, the city would love to have a regional business take the city’s glass, grind it, and reuse it to make a product like fiberglass insulation.

It’s had that hope for years and has yet to find a buyer.

Beggs said he hopes the city pursues this strategy more vigorously.

“It’s been on the books as a strategy, but I don’t think we’ve devoted very much staff resources and time to it,” Beggs said.

The city adopted single-stream recycling – meaning the city’s trash collectors no longer were forced to sort the recycling they picked up at the curbside by hand – in 2012.

It lost $14,000 in the first full year of single-stream recycling, 2013, a metaphorical drop in the blue bucket for a city with a budget approaching $1 billion.

From a materials perspective only, Major said, the switch to single-stream recycling in 2012 was likely a mistake. But that decision was made at a time when China was “taking everything.”

“Quantity was over quality, and of course now we know that that’s flipped,” Major said.

From a city operational perspective, the logic behind the switch holds up. It made recycling simpler for city residents and made collection for city employees safer and more efficient.

Previously, there were many injuries to city workers due to the more physically rigorous nature of the job, Major said.

Mechanized arms now grab a single bin, instead of workers hopping off to grab blue bins by hand. Each stop takes a truck less time, allowing for fewer routes and fewer vehicles. The city invested in trucks powered by compressed natural gas, allowing for fuel savings. The small blue bins were replaced by larger carts and the list of recyclables grew, so more residents began to recycle.

So, all in all, it’s still difficult to determine in hindsight whether single-stream recycling was the right choice nearly a decade later.

“It’s really hard to judge,” Major said.

The milk jug dilemma

So what does this all mean for the consumer?

It’s difficult for even well-intentioned people to keep up, Major acknowledged. Recycling policies can change from town to town. Haulers outside the city of Spokane have removed certain glass containers and plastic containers off their list of recyclables, but the city still collects them.

Even buying milk can be a moral dilemma.

The cardboard carton may seem more environmentally friendly but is actually less recyclable than milk in a plastic jug, Major said.

The cost of recycling is almost a philosophical issue, Stern said, a matter of perspective.

Like many other cities, Spokane is now having to pay for a service that is no longer covered by the value of the material it’s collecting, which was the norm for years.

He acknowledged that the city is frustrated – he’s frustrated, too – but Stern notes that dumping things in a landfill has a cost, as well.

Beggs is intrigued by the concept of forcing manufacturers of packaging to pay cities and towns for the burden of recycling the products they sell to consumers. The hope would be that the manufacturers would choose the less expensive, more environmentally friendly packaging option rather than pass the cost onto consumers. That change would have to come from the state Legislature, Beggs said.

Despite the recent downtown, Major sees signs for hope in the domestic recycling market.

Companies in the United States have looked to fill the void left by China, and with an increase in online shopping due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s higher demand for recycled paper products that can be reused for shipping material, Major said.

Ultimately, Major said, recycling alone “isn’t going to save us.”

Maybe if you want to ensure the plastic container for your spinach doesn’t end up in a landfill, buy the loose stuff. Reduce, reuse and recycle, but with an emphasis on the first, Major suggested.

“We have to get back to the first of the three R’s,” Major said, “to not create the problem to begin with.”

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