Governmental recycling programs nationwide have converted waste product into reusable materials for decades as “reduce, reuse, recycle” has become a more prominent mantra in America. Yet recently, decisions across the world and across the street have impacted the ability for governments, especially local municipalities, to reap any sort of benefit from their recycling programs. That’s particularly true for curbside recycling where the onus falls on government to either collect, haul and sort the refuse, or to find a contractor who will at a reasonable price.

One of the largest factors in the downturn has been a domino-like impact from new Chinese regulations on the amount of contamination they are willing to accept in the recycling loads that are sent overseas to them from American facilities (contamination, in this case, means any unrecyclable material, but also recyclable materials that are grouped incorrectly, like paper mixed in with cardboard, or certain types of plastics). Before the regulations went into effect in September 2017, scraps and waste products were the sixth largest American export to China. The main reason, from China’s perspective, to start paring down their accepted materials was that too much of it became useless. Ever since the concept of single-stream recycling was introduced (replacing dual-stream), loads of supposedly recyclable materials became too polluted with non-recyclable plastics and other materials, rendering the operation no longer as financially lucrative to the Chinese or other countries willing to import American waste and repurpose it.

“China is becoming much more stringent about the requirements in terms of contamination,” Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management Director Barbara Eckstrom said. “What they used to accept, which was five percent contamination, whether that’s garbage or material people think is recyclable but isn’t actually, they started to make a to-do about that. They went to 0.5 percent.”

China doubled down on that 2017 decision by expanding the the new restrictions earlier this year, despite the fact that several countries were still struggling to adapt to the initial set of new rules. Now, Eckstrom said the introduction of single-stream recycling during the last 20 years (eight years ago in Tompkins County) has caused an influx of contaminants, even though she and the department have felt successful in getting the word out to the community about what’s recyclable, what’s trash, and what’s anything else.

“It’s been a much better situation in Tompkins County, we do a lot of education,” Eckstrom said. “But still problematic. We have about five percent contamination rate.” In Tompkins County, residential waste materials are sent to a processing facility in Ontario County by Casella Recycling to be sorted, in the hopes of cutting down on contamination possibilities. Of course, with the new contamination standards a closer processing eye was needed, and with that comes a higher price tag for the county to still use a third-party company to sort through the materials.

Tompkins County residents will see the impact the most through a $3 increase on their annual tax bill, as the fee proposal goes from $55 to $58. In total, that will garner about $150,000 for the recycling department, helping to bridge the financial loss that will additionally (hopefully) be filled in by grants and financial rewards.

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