When Surprise suspended curbside recycling last summer, it sent shockwaves across the Valley.
But Surprise Public Works Director Mike Gent said it was done for a greater good.
“We did the suspension of recycling in order to save recycling in the city of Surprise and for our region,” Mr. Gent told the City Council on Feb. 4 in the latest update of potential solutions. “The status quo wasn’t working.”
Surprise was one of the first municipalities in the Valley to suspend it — but it was far from being the first feeling the pain of a changing recycling market.
With no solution yet in sight, the city is still mulling its options on how to proceed in uncertain conditions.
Mr. Gent said there are three options the city can consider:
• Continue the suspension of recycling until a solution is found, which could be 18 to 60 months away.
• Re-establish a limited recycling program by taking only items such as cardboard, steel, tin and aluminum cans, but no mixed paper.
• End recycling program altogether. Residents would use both containers for trash, which requires all items to be bagged and tied.
Mr. Gent gave the City Council an update on all these options at the council work session.
The city had already not been making money on recycling services, especially with a changing market. But once China began rejecting American recyclables, it eventually became too cost-ineffective for the city.
“We were paying. We felt good about it,” Vice Mayor Chris Judd said. “But it just wasn’t working.”
Once word got out that recycling was going to be suspended last August, social media was flooded with complaints from residents who wanted it resumed or demanded money back on their solid wastewater bills.
Until last July, those rates hadn’t been raised for a decade. And Mr. Gent said even then it wasn’t making a dent in the city’s growing recycling cost once China stopped accepting the goods.
“The vice mayor and I have one thing in common, and that’s seventh grade daughters at home who want us to recycle,” Mr. Gent said. “Even small steps is something that we have encourage and support from especially our younger residents.”
Mayor Skip Hall said he wanted the city being upfront with residents about the challenges it’s facing.
“We could have gone along and not told our residents,” Mr. Hall said. “And we made a judgment decision that we wanted to be honest about the whole issue and not hide it. Some cities that have hidden it. And you undermind trust big time when you do that.”
In addition to trust, it will likely take some public patience as well, if Mr. Gent’s predictions are to come true.
“Recycling is in a state of evolution and flux right now, and we don’t quite know where it’s headed and how it will reach the economically and environmentally goals we have for recycling,” Mr. Gent said.
For recycling commodities prices, mixed paper and cardboard have taken the biggest dive in value.
Plus, technological improvements in plastic bottle production has actually dinged the recycling market on the backside. Mr. Gent said plastic water bottles use half the plastic than over a decade ago, which means less bottom line for recyclers. Now it takes greater quantities to have the same amount of plastic than it used to take in.
“If they’re processing, say, 1,000 bottles a minute, they have to do 2,000 bottles to get to that same production level,” Mr. Gent said. “The economics of recycling requires much more labor to get to the same quantities as before.”
Surprise residents will also need to be better educated on what can be properly recycled in the blue cans if a future program continues.
Mr. Gent said in 2018 and 2019 half of what was collected never made it to the next step of the sorting for recycling commodities because of contamination, either from items that aren’t recyclable or food boxes.
“That was definitely discouraging and a reality that if we want a real recycling solution, we can’t maintain the status quo,” Mr. Gent said.
Contamination of the plastics is what caused China to stop taking them. The country began rejecting recyclables with more than 5% contamination in 2015. That dropped to a half-percent in 2018.
“That’s a standard strictness that’s virtually impossible for that factories that sort the materials to attain,” Mr. Gent said.
He added, “With a little bit more background, people are anxious and supportive of the city of Surprise’s deliberate approach, saying ‘We want a real solution.’”
One option could be using space at the new Public Works Facility in the southeast corner of Litchfield and Cactus as a collection facility to take in still-valuable commodities, such as cardboard, steel, tin, aluminum, plastics 1 and 2.
“That would give our more active residents a place to take them and also educate our residents on what’s recyclable and what’s not,” Mr. Judd said.
Mr. Gent said no matter what happens the city will likely have to invest in a long-term stable solution when one comes in the next few years.
For now, Mr. Gent is taking any ideas that might be good.
“Several people have called with sure fire solutions to solve all our problems, and maybe one of those will pan out,” Mr. Gent said.
Editor’s Note: Jason Stone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit yourvalley.net.