China wants cleaner recycling and that could lead to increased fees to use those blue bins in Salt Lake County

Economic changes in China are clouding the future of curbside recycling in Utah and other states because post-consumer plastic is losing its value, thanks in part to the sloppy way residents separate their waste.

It now costs many Wasatch Front cities more to recycle than it does to entomb the cardboard boxes and soda cans in landfills, according to Pam Roberts, executive director of Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District.

The district’s board on Monday decided to continue offering curbside service, even though its costs have suddenly jumped by $900,000 after its vendors, Rocky Mountain Recycling and Waste Management, raised their per-ton processing fees in response to the lower prices they are fetching in international markets, said Roberts, whose district serves 83,000 households spread around the Salt Lake Valley.

Those increased costs will not result in a hike this year in the monthly waste-collection fee, which had recently been raised by $2.25 to $17.

“The $900,000 equates to $1 per month per household to pay for recycling. Will this cost increase be passed onto our customers? Eventually, it will,” she said. “We shipped garbage across the seas. It’s our own fault, really.”

As much as one-fourth of the material people throw in the blue bins reserved for recycled materials is either not recyclable or contaminated with food, dirt or liquids.

“China was willing to take anything and everything we would export in terms of recycling. They have started to crack down,” said Brad Mertz, executive director of the Recycling Coalition of Utah. “They don’t want trash, they want clean recyclables. It is not so much a China problem as a United States citizenship problem.”

His group has published a list titled “Top 10 in the Bin” to help establish easy-to-remember standards for what should and should not be put in the bins.

“If we think it’s recyclable we throw it in there. We need to be a lot more careful as to what we put in the bin because the end users want a clean material and how can you blame them,” Mertz said. “They are trying to manufacture new products. Of course they want clean, consistent feedstock coming into their plants.”

( Photo courtesy of Larry Gibbons) Workers at Rocky Mountain Recycling sort municipal waste Monday at its Salt Lake City plant. The material arrives through the curbside pickup program conducted across all of Salt Lake County, which nets about 100,000 tons a year. Plastic material is bound for China, but much of it is contaminated, driving down its value for Chinese manufacturers and threatening the viability of curbside programs across the United States.

“The markets for recycling could stabilize,” Roberts said. “The costs could go down as they do with any market. Our board will continue the policy to keep the recycling program as is and continue to educate residents and evaluate the situation as we go.”

Wasatch Front’s service area includes Cottonwood Heights, Herriman, Holladay, Millcreek, Taylorsville, portions of Murray and Sandy; the metro townships of Copperton, Emigration, Kearns, Magna and White City; and unincorporated areas of Salt Lake County. Other cities that contract with processors will likely face their own decisions about whether to increase curbside fees to cover costs.

The majority of the material it collects goes to Rocky Mountain Recycling’s plant in western Salt Lake City where it is processed, baled and marketed. This company is caught between rising costs — associated with sorting recyclables and weeding out the trash — and sinking prices for its products. It passes costs to the districts it serves, which in turn could pass the costs to residents in the form of waste-hauling fees that cover the cost of curbside recycling.

“Recycling is still a very important component of managing our waste stream,” said Salt Lake County sustainability coordinator Ashlee Yoder. “It is critical that residents not abandon recycling, just make a change to clean it up.”

Curbside service has been universal in the county for several years, sending 100,000 tons of material, including glass, a year to processors for recycling, according to Yoder.

“Cities used to get paid for that material and now cities are paying to recycle it. How long will cities be wiling to pay when it costs less to take it the landfill?” asked Mertz. “Some cities might say this is costing a lot of money. We have the landfill space, let’s just save the money. I hope that’s not the case.”

Larry Gibbons, head of business development for Rocky Mountain Recycling, also hopes cities stick with curbside. He believes the cost is minimal, especially when balanced against the benefits. Even if that leads to a pay increase soon.

Recycling keeps 75,000 to 80,000 tons of the county’s residential waste a year out of landfills.

“We didn’t get into these programs for the money, so we shouldn’t get out of them for the money,” Gibbons said. “The choice is to pay a tiny bit more now or pay a lot more later when we have to drive it long distances.”