A decline in the recycling market is forcing waste management companies around the country to rethink their methods. In Delta County, citizens will see a rise in recycling costs and an increase in the call to recycle smarter.
In 2011 the desire for accessible recycling in the county led to formation of a committee, then turned into a pilot program which eventually gave rise to Double J Disposal opening a recycling center.
Around that same time, Corey Rice of Rice Recycling picked up where another young man left off -- picking up recycling curbside and taking it to area recycling centers. Rice came from a big city where curbside was available starting in the 1980s and wanted to implement something similar in the area.
Since then, customers of both services have only increased. According to Double J's numbers, nearly four thousand tons of material was shipped to end-users since 2012, rather than to the county landfill. Rice Recycling now has 14 route days in Delta County past Crawford, and also goes into Montrose County and Olathe.
Citizens are thankful, and there's a definite demand in the area, but the process isn't easy. As centers around the nation struggle with the ramifications of China's import ban, including a lack of buyers and dropping domestic prices, the question is becoming, what else can, and should, we do?
One general challenge to recycling is the sheer labor involved. After recyclable materials are picked up, if curbside, or from a facility such as the North Fork Transfer Station, they're sorted if needed, compacted and baled, and stored until they can be delivered to a buyer.
"There's so much more labor involved before we get to the fact that it's more expensive to recycle than to just throw it away," said Rachel Leonard with Double J.
The next big hurdle, and not one isolated to just this county, is cost. Rice pointed out that being far away from coastal shipping makes it more difficult to find buyers. Since the import ban was put in place, most of the material accepted by recycling centers is being shipped at a higher cost. Centers lose money as they're paying for buyers to take materials.
For example, for Double J to recycle plastics costs the facility $178 per ton. Part of this comes from how they accept plastic numbered 1-7, which means buyers have to sort it after it's shipped.
Cardboard is at its lowest buy price in decades, now $4-$16/ton after shipping. Sometimes loads can sit for months at centers even after being readied for shipment simply due to lack of driver availability or buyers.
"These numbers don't begin to cover our operating costs," details a flyer being handed to Double J customers regarding processing prices. For the last several months, they've watched the market. But as of June 3 they're implementing new pricing to help absorb some of the losses.
"I've discovered there are people who really care about recycling and will do anything to make it happen. As long as customers continue to look for the service we're happy to provide it," said Leonard.
When citizens recycle, they can make the process easier by ensuring everything is sorted and clean. Because they don't meet the needs of the market, contaminated recyclables end up in landfills. Glass, one of the worst contaminators when broken, needs to be kept separate from other materials.
Citizens also need to know what's accepted before tossing it in. For example, styrofoam can sometimes be recycled but isn't accepted by either local recycling company. Just because a chip bag gets thrown in the recycle bin doesn't mean it stays out of a landfill.
"We see a lot of aspirational recycling where people put it in the bin because they want it to be recycled," said Leonard. "It comes down to a lot of education and outreach."
Rice is also an advocate of approaching recycling through a lifestyle mindset. This looks at consumption as refusing, reducing, reusing and recycling -- not just viewing it as an industry of processing and reusing resources.
"I think we're at the stage where it's about bringing awareness of consumption," she said. "What I've noticed in Delta [County] is they don't know how to reduce; that's a critical piece of recycling."
Leonard also said part of the solution is buying recycled materials. If no one buys them, then the demand isn't there for a material to be reused in the first place. She also assured customers that their facility won't burn materials like others have in response to the import ban. However, some recycling methods may change depending on future demand.
"The markets have been bad for three months, but it's a nationwide problem," said Leonard. There has to be a solution that arises since, as a nation, we are recycling."