What is Happening to Humboldt County’s Recyclables?

Recycling symbol
Photo: Chris Potter, ccPixs.com.

Following the introduction of a new policy in China earlier this year, much of the world is experiencing an extreme recycling crisis. As of January 1, China put a ban on foreign imports of various types of recyclable paper and plastic, and severely tightened the restrictions on the recyclable materials that they will accept. Those materials that they will still accept must now meet a strict 0.5 percent contamination standard—which waste management organizations have stated is nearly impossible to achieve.

This poses a huge problem for recycling systems all around the world, as China was formerly the number one global importer of recyclable materials. Many waste management companies have scrambled to search for other importers to take their recyclable goods, and unfortunately in many places, recycling processes have been completely put on hold. According to a recent article in The New York Times, many small-scale recycling companies in Oregon and other western states have had to resort to dumping tons of recyclable materials straight into the landfill, as the foreign markets that previously absorbed their recyclables have largely closed up.

Bales of plastic and aluminum recyclables at Recology’s Recycle Central Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) at Pier 96, San Francisco. Photo: Walter Parenteau, Flickr CC.
Bales of plastic and aluminum recyclables at Recology’s Recycle Central Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) at Pier 96, San Francisco. Photo: Walter Parenteau, Flickr CC.

So how does this global recycling crisis affect Humboldt County, and what is happening to our recyclable materials after they leave our driveways? To answer these questions, we need to take a deeper look at Humboldt’s recycling system and who is involved in this process.

There are a few local companies that collect and process our recyclable materials here in Humboldt County. Recology is the primary company involved in the collection of recyclables in the area, serving Arcata (including HSU), Fortuna, Rio Dell, Blue Lake, Ferndale, Garberville, Holmes, Redcrest, and Fieldbrook, in addition to Eureka and the outlying communities that surround Eureka. Recology Arcata also receives recyclables from Del Norte County, since they no longer have a recycling facility, as well as from Ashland, Oregon.

After collecting the recyclable materials at their facilities, Recology ships them to various international markets. While General Manager of Recology Arcata Linda Wise stated that the names of the specific companies that they sell to is proprietary information, she has said that they are aware of the current recycling crisis, and that her facility has made arrangements to have their recyclables sent to international importers other than China.

“We want to send it to people who do the right thing with it,” Wise mentioned in an interview.

Humboldt Sanitation is another major company involved in our recycling system, providing recycling services to McKinleyville, Trinidad, Westhaven, Big Lagoon, and Orick and pick up curbside from McKinleyville to Big Lagoon. Humboldt Waste Management Authority’s Eureka Recycling Center also accepts public recycling drop-offs from the surrounding area, though they do not provide a curbside pickup service.

Both Humboldt Sanitation and Humboldt Waste Management Authority send their recyclable materials to Solid Waste of Willits—a processing facility that is owned and operated locally in Willits. From there, these recyclables are processed and sorted, and sold to various brokers in the U.S. who then sell the materials to foreign importers.

Some of these brokers include California-based sustainable waste solutions company Berg Mill Supply Co., Sweden-based international forest marketing/sales company Ekman, Sacramento-based recycling buyer/seller Ming’s Recycling Corporation, and huge North American waste/environmental services corporation Waste Management, Inc.

Some of these companies are more environmentally-focused than others, and prioritize sustainability as the main driver of their waste management work. Berg Mill Supply Co., for example, has a mission statement that centers around environmentalism and sustainability, and provides information directly on their website about the international locations to which they send their recovered materials to be turned into new products. Waste Management, Inc. also claims a commitment to sustainability, and the company prides themselves on being the top environmental solutions provider in North America.

Other companies, however, seem to be less environmentally-driven, and make it nearly impossible to uncover information about where their recovered materials ultimately end up. Ordinarily, many of these recyclable materials would’ve been sent to China, but brokers must now search for other markets as a result of their recent recycling ban.

The Recycling Coordinator at Solid Waste of Willits mentioned in an interview that she’s heard word of more of these brokers beginning to ship our recyclables to other countries across Southeast Asia to be processed instead, but was unable to provide many details on this point.

She stated that ultimately, “the brokers are the ones who deal with sending it out to other countries,”—and these corporations do not provide the specific details of this information either.

After speaking to various waste management companies and local recycling experts, the bottom line seems to be that the recycling process is extremely complex and dynamic, especially in light of China’s recent recycling ban.

“The recycling process has been fluid over the years,” explained Margaret Gainer, a Zero Waste Humboldt founder who has vast knowledge of the local recycling system. “It’s dependent on the global market, and a complex network of other factors.”

Even without the added pressures of this worldwide recycling market crisis, the process of recycling in Humboldt County can be difficult, given the county’s rural location and lack of local processing and manufacturing facilities. Just transporting our recyclable materials out of the county and to the nearest brokers or processing plants in the Bay Area and Southern California can be expensive, and produces a significant carbon footprint—which clearly isn’t an ideal outcome when the aim of recycling is sustainability.

The difficulty of these logistics—especially when coupled with a shrinking international market for recyclable goods—puts a great strain on local recycling companies, who are often barely able to break even when exporting our recyclable materials.

Gainer mentioned that one of they reasons they founded Zero Waste Humboldt back in 2011 is that they knew recycling systems were weakening, and wanted to shift public education to waste prevention.

In addition to the challenges facing the local recycling system, many of the recyclable materials that are collected and processed will still ultimately not end up being recycled if they contain high levels of contamination. If they are not pure enough to be considered valuable in the global market, many of our recyclable materials will likely end up in the landfill anyway. Simply put in a How Stuff Works piece about recycling: “The cleaner the materials you return, the more likely it is they will be recycled.”

Because of this, it’s extremely important to take steps to reduce the levels of contamination in the materials that you recycle. There are a few easy ways to do this: first, look for recycling labels on the containers you dispose of and determine that they are in fact recyclable; avoid throwing materials in recycling that are not recyclable (especially things like plastic bags and wrappers); and empty and rinse out containers to remove food and other contaminants before placing them in your recycling bin.

Further, because our curbside recycling programs collect single-stream mixed recycling, this can also potentially result in higher levels of contamination than you’d find in dual-stream recycling systems (where recyclables are separated by individuals at home). For this reason, sorting your recyclables at home and dropping them off yourself at recycling collection facilities could be another way to improve the quality and recyclability of the materials you turn in.

So while China’s ban on recyclable imports is only making things even more difficult and uncertain, really there are many obstacles to truly recycling and repurposing the waste that we produce. If we want to ensure that we aren’t sending more materials to the landfill, we ought to first focus our efforts on waste prevention and resource conservation.

“There’s a whole lot of stuff that shouldn’t even be run through the recycling process,” insisted Margaret Gainer, “it should be avoided in the first place.”

While the difficult realities of the recycling process may be disheartening, it does add further incentive to reduce the amount of waste that we produce altogether, and to be more conscious of our own individual contributions to this global issue. There’s a lot that we can do to prevent waste from ending up in landfills, and the first steps are simply reducing and reusing the materials that we consume.

“At its very best,” Gainer insisted, “authentic recycling starts with resource conservation first.”