In Context: The Future of Recycling

Recycling

Changes to the City of Sugar Land’s recycling program could be in the works as China, previously the world’s largest importer of recycled materials according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and other countries across the world continue to implement restrictions on the types and quality of material accepted, said the City’s Environmental Manager Taylor Danesi.

The quality of recycled materials is determined by a contamination rate, which evaluates the presence of any material that isn’t specifically accepted by a recycling program. For example, Sugar Land accepts plastics 1-5 and 7. Placing plastic 6, better known as Styrofoam, would be considered contamination. Contamination also includes more obvious sources such as food waste and garbage.

China will now only accept materials with a .5 percent contamination rate, a massive decrease from the 15 to 25 percent contamination rate that is typically seen in curbside recycling programs. Sugar Land has a contamination rate less than 5 percent, which Danesi said is the result of years of public education and residents utilizing the program responsibly.

However, the new standard makes it difficult for processing facilities who don’t have the equipment or the capacity to get material that clean, Danesi said.

 “It has flipped the market upside down,” Danesi said. “There is all this material that’s coming out of the United States, and much of it can’t go to China … supply and demand has been thrown off.”

Because of this, the value of the goods has significantly decreased over the past two years, and it now costs more to recycle materials than it does to send them to a landfill.

During this time, new consumer markets have become available, and the industry has seen investments domestically; however, it’s going to take time for the market to stabilize and new end markets to be identified in order to offset the impacts caused by these changes.

Sugar Land residents currently pay $18.91 per month for solid waste services, which include garbage collection and recycling. The City has yet to determine whether there will be any price changes if services are affected. The City’s Solid Waste Division is evaluating options to move forward in a financially and environmentally responsible manner and working with the City Council.

In the meantime, Danesi urges Sugar Land residents to keep in mind the following:

  • Outside forces are affecting Sugar Land locally. They always will. When working with something like recycling, the City will always have to monitor how supply-and-demand will affect the recycling industry.
  • Be aware of your waste. As a Sugar Land resident, you should do your best to minimize the amount of waste you and your family produce. Creating less waste and finding ways to reuse items should be your first choice.
  • Don’t participate in wishful recycling. Wishful recycling is when residents place items into their recycling bin in hopes that it will be recycled. These items make it difficult for materials that can be recycled to be properly cleaned and recycled. It also stalls the recycling process.
  • Keep tabs on the recycling industry. Recycling markets are always fluctuating because of supply-and-demand. More information on the current recycling industry and how recycling may change in Sugar Land can be found at sugarlandtx.gov/RecycleFuture