If your bandwidth for crises isn’t overwhelmed, you may be aware there’s a recycling crisis going on right now. The vast quantities of recyclables that thousands of communities in the U.S. sold to China for repurposing have not been accepted for about a year.
It might not seem like a crisis, exactly, to the public, since the stockpiles are growing mostly out of sight and our garbage rates haven’t gone berserk.
But market disruption and adjustment is understating the gaping imbalance between supply and demand. At some point in the near future, we’ll be shocked at the cost increase to have our waste taken away.
Communities in the Pacific Northwest have been hit especially hard, partly because of our good intentions: we like to recycle. We like it so much we’ve shot ourselves in the proverbial foot, by being too liberal with what we toss into that container with the circular arrows.
Take plastic. China’s current refusal of our bales of plastic waste is largely because they’re “contaminated” with items that are the wrong type or aren’t recyclable at all.
Forbes says 50 billion plastic bottles of water are bought each year in the U.S. alone — more than 1 million per minute. More than 90 percent of those are not recycled. You’ve likely seen photos of the Pacific Ocean “gyre” of plastic, and perhaps of the machine built to scoop it up (which broke last month).
Sadly (but not surprisingly), with a supply of five billion recycled bottles per year there aren’t enough factories interested in buying them even if they were clean, well-sorted, and delivered to their doorstep. A few factories exist, as we know from Patagonia’s fleece made from 2-liter pop bottles, but there isn’t enough demand to make a dent in that vast supply.
In addition, the cost to segregate and melt down used plastic into a reusable material is greater than the cost to start from fossil-fuel scratch. A portion of Patagonia’s customer base may be able and willing to pay for that extra processing, but very few manufacturers are willing to do the same.
Willing or not, the rest of us may soon be paying.
The alternatives for dealing with growing piles of recyclables are limited. It comes down to what hauling companies will accept based on their negotiations with landfill operators and buyers of “raw” recyclable materials: cardboard, paper, metal, and plastic. The market is well developed but hidden to most of us, though it may need to become higher profile.
The options are:
1. Combine recyclables with trash and haul to a regulated, non-polluting landfill. News flash: the Port Angeles landfill does NOT qualify.
2. Incinerate it in a high-tech, non-polluting facility. Western Washington has a few, regulated for emissions by the state.
3. Stockpile it until a solution is found. Viable if you have the real estate and faith that the recycling industry will rebound.
Each of these options is more expensive than the now-obsolete option of selling to China, so waste collection rates are sure to rise.
On the other hand, there is renewed incentive to maximize recycling for items with a ready market. To do that, our options are:
A) Educate the public how to properly sort. Comprehensive, coordinated, and consistent rules in the region or state are key to avoid exasperating consumers. “Empty, clean, and dry” is one message, and “When in doubt, throw it out” is another.
B) Enforce strict rules. Some communities do spot checks and fine customers for poor sorting.
C) Invest in machines or personnel to perfect the sorting process. In case you thought it was about aesthetics, grocery store bans on plastic bags originated due to the trouble that flimsy plastic bags cause for sorting machines.
Incidentally, one of Sequim City Council’s top six priorities is to reduce recyclables and food waste hauled to the landfill. You’ll soon see new education coming from our local waste management team.
The recycling crisis qualifies as a “wicked problem” because of its complexity; today’s column barely scratches the surface. It’s also wicked because resolution will require a shift in how all of us think. Indeed, “Rethink” is the latest addition to the old adage, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” We need to convert most of what we currently think of as “waste” into something usable.
As an example, if the packaging industry demanded recycled material rather than raw, we’d have a “circular economy” with a ready market for the plastic, cardboard, paper, and metals we are learning to sort.
Perhaps the great recyclers of the Pacific Northwest could demand packaging made from their recycling.
Sequim’s new moniker could be, “Where waste is wealth!”
Since this is actually a column about water, I will point out that the water cycle we all learned in middle school is a great model of a circular economy, where the “goods and services” are water.
More on that in “Circles and Cycles, Part 2.”
For more information, call Clallam County Waste Prevention Program at 360-417-2441.
Since I started this column in late 2015, the December-January snowpack at the Dungeness SNOTEL has been between 17 and 29 inches; on Jan. 6, 2019, it’s at 3 inches.
Most drought-watcher federal websites I’d like to consult are unavailable because of to the government shutdown, but my understanding is that the Olympic Mountains are not quite as snow-endowed as the Cascades so far, and that temperatures over the coming month will be the big test.
For the 2019 Water Year (started Oct. 1):
• Rain in Sequim: At the Sequim 2E weather station (Schmuck Rd.): Total rainfall = 7.1 inches; Highest temp = 65 deg. F on Oct. 13; Lowest temp = 19 deg. F on Dec. 6.
• Snow in the upper Dungeness watershed: At the SNOTEL station (elev. 4,010 feet): Snow depth = 3 inches; Snow water equivalent = 1.9 inches (60 percent of normal). Cumulative Precip is about average. Number of days temperature stayed below freezing unknown (data not available).
• River flow at the USGS gauge on the Dungeness (mile 11.2): Maximum flow = 1,870 cubic feet per second (cfs) on Nov. 27; Minimum flow = 77 cfs on Oct. 25. Currently (Jan. 6): 560 cfs.
• Flow at Bell Creek entering Carrie Blake Park: Flow = a trickle (~0.3 cfs); Bell Creek at Washington Harbor = flow generally 2-5 cfs in winter, unless it’s storming.
Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now Resource Manager for City of Sequim. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent policies of her employer. Reach Ann at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her blog at watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.