Politics & Government

Can Lexington afford its recycling program? Some cities nix recycling as costs climb.

Are you recycling wrong?

Recycling program manager Angela Poe explains what can and can not go into recycling bins in Lexington, Kentucky.
Up Next
Recycling program manager Angela Poe explains what can and can not go into recycling bins in Lexington, Kentucky.

The city of Troy, Missouri, quit curbside recycling last year. Akron, Ohio, is no longer recycling glass. The Deltona City Commission in Florida voted to suspend its recycling program on Feb. 1.

In Lexington, no changes to its recycling program have been proposed. Yet.

Several cities have quit accepting some recyclable material, such as plastics, as the market for those materials tanked last year after the Chinese government, a major buyer for recycled goods, pulled out. The Chinese government’s decision to up its standards for the cleanliness and purity of plastic and paper recycling material has put cities that use single-stream recycling — systems that don’t require users to presort recyclables — in a financial bind.

Single-stream recycling, which is the system used in Lexington, does not produce recycling material that meets the new Chinese standards.

Charlie Martin, Lexington’s acting Environmental Quality and Public Works Commissioner, said the city is struggling to find buyers for certain goods, such as paper, but markets for other recyclables, such as metals and some plastics, remain strong.

Preliminary numbers show that in 2018, it cost the city of Lexington $2.6 million to recycle. The operation made $2.1 million on the sale of recycling, creating a loss of about $500,000. In 2017, the cost to recycle was $2.7 million, compared to $2.6 million generated by the sale of recycling material. From 2011 to 2018, the operation lost a net total of $424, 028, according to figures provided by the city.

Barry Prater, who oversees the recycling center, said about 40 percent of recycled mixed paper in the United States was purchased by China. The city used to sell that paper for $120 a ton.

“Now half a truck of the good paper is going for about $35 a ton,” Prater said, but that’s only when there is a buyer. The market is now flooded with mixed paper. If there is no buyer, the city has to give it away for reuse or it is sent to the landfill, Prater said.

190124Recyclingmg002
Barry Prater, plant operator manager, Thursday at the Lexington Recycling Center. Matt Goins

The level of contamination — or percentage of material put into recycling bins that can not be recycled and must go to the landfill — is inching up, Prater said. “It’s between 22 and 27 percent. And that’s what all (recycling centers) across the country are seeing,” Prater said.

Martin and city officials said no decisions about the city’s recycling program will be made soon and urged people to continue to recycle as usual.

Mayor Linda Gorton just took office in early January and is still searching for a full-time environmental commissioner. Martin is the long-time director of water quality and oversees the city’s $590 million storm sewer overhaul. Gorton is still searching for a full-time environmental commissioner.

“It will take some time for us to see what these numbers are going to look like,” Martin said.

Also, the market for recycled goods constantly changes, he said. There have been many ups and downs over the past decade.

The city’s recycling center on Thompson Road also processes recycling for 16 affiliates, including the University of Kentucky, neighboring counties and cities, and private waste disposal companies.

“I am focused on how to maximize the efficiency of the operation we have right now,” Martin said. ”We want them to be more proactive then reactive.”

190124Recyclingmg006
Plastic recyclables baled for transport Thursday at the Lexington Recycling Center. Photo by Matt Goins Matt Goins

That means hiring two new positions, including a full-time maintenance person, to ensure the facility does not have frequent shut downs. In the past year, the recycling center had to shut down six times, including Thursday and Friday of this week. During those shut downs, recycling that was supposed to be sent to the recycling center went to the landfill.

This week, the operation had to shut down because of multiple mechanical failures caused by wet recyclables jamming up the equipment, city officials said.

The city’s recycling program also is upping its education outreach efforts to reduce the amount of non-recyclable items put in recycling bins. Not only can items like garden hoses not be recycled “they get into the recycling center, wrap around our machinery and break it,” said Angela Poe, a senior program manager with the city.

On Thursday, Poe pointed to newly-dumped recycling waiting to be processed at the recycling center on Thompson Road.

That half-smashed Miller Lite case? Not recyclable. Neither is that plastic laundry basket. An old record? Nope.

Glass, paper, cardboard, aluminum and steel cans, and plastics are recyclable, she said. But not all plastics.

“Only plastic jugs and containers with a screw top lid,” Poe said.

Plastic bags — such as grocery or sandwich bags— are not recyclable.

Pizza delivery boxes can be recycled, but frozen pizza boxes can not, Poe said.

Anything made of cardboard that is designed to be put in a freezer or refrigerator, such as that Miller Lite case, has a coating on it that prevents it from breaking down under water. That means it can not be recycled, she said.

Martin said over the past year medical waste — including medicine bags, used surgical gloves and medical tubing — has been dumped into the recycling stream five times. When medical waste is found, the entire facility has to stop and the medical waste has to be cleared. It can cause the line to shut down for hours, Martin said.

Another no-no: Stacking recyclables outside of recycling containers when they are full. This happens a lot at Christmas, Martin said.

“Wet cardboard can not be recycled,” Martin said. “If you force something that can not be recycled into that system, in some ways you are undermining what can be recycled because it is fouling up our equipment.”

Martin said any time the facility goes down for scheduled maintenance, the city will alert residents. That way, if a resident’s recycling container is not full they can to hold on to it until the recycling center is back online.

Poe said the dramatic changes in the recycling market also mean people need to think more broadly about conservation. Recycling is not the only way to protect the environment, she said. Cutting back on consumption is the first step.

“It’s reduce, reuse and recycle,” Poe said. “Recycling is not the only way to conserve.”

Beth Musgrave has covered government and politics for the Herald-Leader for more than a decade. A graduate of Northwestern University, she has worked as a reporter in Kentucky, Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois and Washington D.C.


  Comments