Facing changing global conditions, two southern Salt Lake County cities have made changes to their recycling services in an effort to reduce contamination in their waste streams.
Draper and Midvale no longer are accepting a host of paper-based products, including cereal boxes, office paper, newspapers, magazines, junk mail, phone books, cardboard, brown paper bags and construction paper. Instead, they’re asking residents to focus on the “big three” recyclables: corrugated cardboard, plastic bottles with a neck, and metal food and beverage cans.
The previously recyclable items must now be taken to drop-off points or go into regular garbage bins.
Dave Newton, vice chairman of the board of directors for the Trans-Jordan Landfill (of which both cities are members), said the board recommended the changes at its meeting last month because much of the paper products people put in their blue bins end up in the landfill anyway.
“We as a board feel that there’s only three products that are being recycled right now and that’s metals and one and two plastics and cardboard,” he said. “The rest is coming back to the landfill, and we’re concerned about that. But it’s up to the cities to decide what they want to do.”
Murray, Riverton, West Jordan, South Jordan and Sandy, which are also part of the Trans-Jordan Landfill, confirmed that they have not yet opted into the changes, despite news reports in other outlets stating otherwise. Several said they are conducting public education campaigns with their residents about what can and can’t be recycled.
For years, residents across the Salt Lake Valley have approached their blue bins with a somewhat aspirational nature, recycling whatever they hoped or believed to be recyclable — and often contaminating the waste stream in the process.
“The message was: ‘Put it all in your bin. We’ll sort it later,’” the Trans-Jordan Landfill explained in a message to customers on its website about the changes.
In 2017, China, the world’s largest importer of recycled materials, passed its “National Sword” program, which implemented stricter standards around the waste and contamination levels it would accept. That’s changed conditions in the United States at large and has led to increased costs for many municipalities across Utah, which used to get paid for their recycled materials and now have to pay to recycle.
To compensate for these shifts in the global marketplace, the Trans-Jordan Landfill said it is hoping to reduce contamination through “simplicity,” “consistency” and “awareness” of its “big three” campaign.
“We know this is a huge shift for our community, and change will not come overnight,” the message concluded. “But if we work together, perhaps recycling can be better than it was before.”
Laura Magness, a spokeswoman for Midvale, said she was “proud” of the city for making the decision to alter its recycling program, noting that about 52% of the items people put in their bins there end up in the landfill.
“It’s a hard political decision,” she said. “But you want to make sure you’re being good stewards of the environment.”
The Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District, one of the largest residential waste and recycling collectors in Salt Lake County, is making no changes to the materials it accepts, Executive Director Pam Roberts said.
Instead, Roberts encouraged residents in the organization’s service area — which 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 — to “stay the course,” but be conscious of what they’re putting in their recycling bin.
“Keep it clean,” she said. “That helps tremendously to make paper more marketable. Keep it clean and also get those plastic bags out of there.”
Though the Trans-Jordan Landfill identifies a decreased market for paper recyclables as part of the impetus behind its changes, Roberts said the “future is bright” for those and other commodities. New paper mills are opening up around the world, and a local mill, Crossroads Paper, is expected to come to the Salt Lake Valley in early 2020, she noted.
With that in mind, Roberts said she doesn’t anticipate similar changes to the Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District’s services in the future — though the district is looking at a future rate increase.
The recycling provider recently sought feedback from its customers on a $1.50 a month hike in recycling fees and found a majority were in favor. Roberts said that fee increase could be considered for 2021 and noted there may be other refuse-related fee changes based on increased tipping costs and wage inflation.
Salt Lake City is also looking at raising its recycling rates for the first time in five years — a move it has said would come more as a result of inflationary costs for equipment and operations than because of global changes.
Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s final budget proposal originally had included a 9.5% increase on residential trash collection rates on the largest garbage cans and 42.9% for recycling. The City Council, however, voted to delay any rise until the city could conduct further public outreach.
Salt Lake City’s sustainability department is now seeking input through Dec. 8 on a “modest” proposed fee increase for curbside waste and recycling services through an online survey at slcgreen.com/rates. The responses will help inform whether the city opts for a small but steady increase over time or a larger monthly increase that holds steady for a few years, according to Sophia Nicholas, a spokeswoman for the city’s sustainability department.
Any rate increase will ultimately be subject to approval by the City Council and would likely take effect in July 2020.
Nicholas said the city is “very committed to recycling” and encouraged residents to continue recycling as normal under its existing guidelines.
“We are investing in technology, in education and outreach and communicating with residents and that keeps our costs to maintain a robust recycling program as low as possible," she said. "Residents can help by only recycling what is accepted and not engaging in wishful recycling.”