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Throwing away dirty, unacceptable items imposes major burdens on recyclers

The "tip room" at Republic Services' processing plant in Hazelwood, where trucks bring in recycling.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Waste company Republic Services began processing recycling for Kirkwood, Brentwood and municipalities contracted with Waste Management in early November because Resource Management stopped accepting single-stream recycling.

The stuff we’re throwing into recycling bins is getting so dirty that it’s driving up costs and forcing recycling companies to shut down.

In St. Louis, several municipal governments began sending their recycling to other processing plants. O’Fallon officials told residents they were no longer going to pick up paper and cardboard.

China, which has long accepted a large portion of paper and plastics from western countries, last year started rejecting paper and plastic from the United States. That’s because single-stream recycling contains too much contamination, such as food residue and rain-soaked paper.

To help solve the problem, recycling advocates are trying to convince residents to clean items before disposal and keep unwanted materials out of the recycling bin. A St. Louis area recycling task force began an awareness campaign to educate people about the issue.

“What we like to say is, if I’m done with a napkin or kleenex, would you want it? And normally, the response is a resounding, ‘No, ew, that’s gross.’ Well, that’s what the recyclers think too,” said Ian Ashcraft, an environmental representative at the St. Louis County Department of Public Health.

China’s import ban caused a shift in global markets that forced recycling company Resource Management, which served parts of the St. Louis area, to stop accepting materials in November. Materials that recycling companies used to sell to China are being shipped to countries in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia and Vietnam. 

Single-stream recycling, throwing recyclable materials in one bin instead of separating them, began in the United States in the 1990s. There were many reservations about single-stream when it became available, said Jean Ponzi, green resources manager at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s EarthWays Center.

“The thinking was that when recycling becomes that convenient, more people would participate and the loss [from] contamination will be offset by a higher level of participation and more material diverted,” Ponzi said. “Initially, that seemed to prove true. But as more things got lumped in there and people, the markets and the industry got more careless, that’s when we really got into trouble.”

An illustration of item that should not be thrown in the recycling bin.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Plastic toys and garden hoses are among the most common items that are improperly thrown into recycling bins.

Unrinsed food waste in plastics and rain-soaked newspapers are only part of what causes problems for recyclers. Nearly a quarter of what arrives at Republic Services’ two recycling plants in St. Louis County has to be removed and taken to a landfill, which is costly, general manager Brent Batliner said.

When recycling arrives at Republic Services’ plant in Hazelwood, it’s dumped on the floor in an enormous room. A large wall divides the residential and commercial recycling heaps. Batliner pointed at various objects lying on the floor, including a toy oven and a garden hose, that can’t be recycled. The worst are plastic bags, which are scattered nearly everywhere and are draped from the sides of ramps that lead into the facility.

“I think people have good intentions,” Batliner said, “but we have to pull all this stuff out in our ‘pre-sort room.’ If any of this stuff got through, it would damage our equipment.”

The pre-sort room is one of the noisiest parts of the Hazelwood facility, where a steady stream of materials entered in rapid succession on a conveyor belt. Workers quickly tried to pull items, like wood and a large plastic sheet, off of the line.

Workers at the Republic Services' Hazelwood plant in November 2018.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Workers in the "pre-sort" room at Republic Services' Hazelwood plant try to remove objects that could damage equipment in the facility.

“We lose about an hour of production a day due to some type of operational downtime,” Batliner said. “Something wrapped around a shaft, a lot of times a piece of wood will bridge and the material will build up on it and we gotta get in and remove that. I would say the majority of downtime is caused by contamination issues.”

Batliner also has ordered equipment and hired more workers to handle the high levels of contamination. After contracting with more municipalities this fall, he added another shift to Republic Services’ south St. Louis County facility.

There are many domestic companies that buy the materials processed by Republic Services. However, a category of mixed paper materials that include junk mail and newspaper was largely shipped overseas to China. That type of paper constituted up to 40 percent of the materials processed by the St. Louis plants, Batliner said. China’s import standards have hiked up costs because the paper has to be shipped to different parts of the world.

“It’s the worst that this industry has been,” Batliner said. “I’ve never had to charge what I’m charging now for single stream to be dumped on my tip floor. It’s costing waste haulers more than it would cost to go to the landfill with those materials.”

But Batliner is optimistic that the situation will improve. He expects to be able to sell some of the mixed paper to domestic paper mills that open for business in 2019. However, residents, businesses and other entities could make the most impact by recycling more responsibly, he said.

“As long as we give what we ask for, empty, clean and dry as possible, these [recycling] programs will flourish and be successful,” Batliner said.

Correction: Food cartons, including juice boxes, can be recycled as long as they were not stored in a freezer. A previous version of this St. Louis Public Radio report included an illustration that incorrectly stated whether juice boxes can be recycled.

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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