Due to changing demand in the global market for recyclable materials, the city of Greensboro will no longer be accepting certain items for recycling including glass, gabled cartons and large plastic items starting July 1. The city will also be getting rid of their 20 recycling drop-off locations.

Starting July 1, Greensboro residents will no longer be able to recycle glass in residential recycling cans. Other items that will no longer be recyclable include gabled cartons — the triangular-roof shaped cartons often used for milk and juice — and large plastic items like lawn furniture and buckets, pots and pans, and shredded paper.

The new restrictions are a direct result of changing global markets for recycled goods, according to the city.

“There’s been a downturn in global economy for these particular items,” said Chris Marriott, the deputy director of field operations for Greensboro. “A lot of our stuff is resold and reused locally but [recycling companies] use a global exchange rate.”

Greensboro’s contracts with Republic Services, a publicly-traded company, to handle its recycling.

The main reason why companies like Republic are cutting down on the types of recycling they accept is largely because overseas countries, mainly China, have begun to limit the amount of recyclable materials that they buy.

For decades, has China been the main consumer of most of the world’s recyclables, using the materials to create new goods like shoes, bags and plastic products. But in 2018 the country implemented restrictions on what recyclables it would import, citing pollution issues. The move, which some called the “National Sword,” banned the importation of several types of recyclables including low-grade plastics and unsorted paper. The regulation also aimed to increase the quality of the materials by reducing the allowed amount of contamination in imported recyclables from 1.5 to 0.5 percent.

This stricter contamination rate has raised the cost of processing for many recycling companies like Republic Services. According to Marriott, they have increased the number of workers needed to maintain a better product and added more shifts. They’ve also had to slow the rate of the assembly line, which workers use to sort the materials.

“Cutting back on the amount of contamination has limited what we can sell to [Republic] under our current practices,” Marriott said. “It causes their processing costs to go up because they have to have a purer product.”

Glass causes a lot of contamination because it gets crushed to be recycled, and then the tiny particles get into other types of recycling like plastic or paper, Marriott said.

As for the gabled cartons, Marriott said there’s just not as much demand for them. The material currently gets sorted with mixed paper because there isn’t as much gabled product in the city’s stream and mixed paper is a low-value commodity. Large plastic items as well as pots and pans tend to jam up the recycling machinery and shredded paper sticks to surfaces easily and also causes contamination.

Starting in July, the city is requiring residents to put these materials in their garbage can instead of in the recycling. Tori Carle, the waste reduction supervisor for city, also suggests that residents try to consume less of these products or donate items to places like Goodwill. If they continue to put them in their recycling bins, they could have their recycling can taken away.

In addition to cutting down on the types of materials they are collecting, the city will also be getting rid of the 20 recycling drop-off locations that are located around town. These are the large blue dumpsters where residents can take extra recyclables, including ones too large to fit in household bins. This is due to increased contamination of the drop-off locations says Marriott. Because of the new overseas regulations, Republic Services will be charging the city for any contaminated recyclables they bring to the company.

“These sites have been historically highly contaminated,” he said. “People dump mattresses and things like that. When you get that in there, or things like regular household trash or liquid, it ruins the whole load, especially liquid. It makes the cardboard and paper non-usable.”

For now, Marriott says residents who have excess recycling they would otherwise take to one of the drop-off sites can purchase an extra recycling cart from the city for $50. He also recommends squishing and breaking down all materials before putting them in the cans.

A graphic guide by the city of Greensboro that includes their recent changes. (courtesy photo)

To help offset the new changes, Marriott says the city plans on adding two or three new recycling drop-off locations specifically for glass that will be regulated to avoid contamination. He says he understands that the changes will be significant for many residents who are used to recycling.

“There’s gonna be a sacrifice for residents that wanna do good,” Marriott said. “But we will continue to re-evaluate to make sure we’re offering the best service we can.”

The plans to change the way the city handles recycling has caused some residents to think more creatively about what to do with their materials like glass.

Paige Cox is the director at Reconsidered Goods, a store that takes in and resells art supplies and other usable materials. She says that since the city’s announcement, her employees have received questions about how it will affect the store’s intake or what they should do about certain materials. In an email, Cox explained that Reconsidered Goods currently accepts clean, unlabeled mason jars but not beer or wine bottles. Still, she said the store plans on inspiring customers with re-use projects for unwanted glass containers.

“Our hope is that this change in recycling can help us spark a deeper look into our purchasing choices and continue to reduce our waste,” Cox said. “Recycling waste is a commodity, and without the demand, the supply is not going to go away. So, we as a community will need to think creatively and help each other find viable solutions. Recycling has been our environmental Band-Aid for years, and the reality is that it’s about to change worldwide, and not just for Greensboro.”

But the new international regulations haven’t made an impact on nearby cities like Winston-Salem and High Point.

Melanie Bruton, the superintendent of material recovery for High Point, says because the city handles its own recycling, they’ve been able to come up with creative ways to continue to accept most types of recycling.

“There have been a lot of changes nationally and globally because of economics and environmental issues,” Bruton said. “But we’re kind of in a good position because we are in charge of our own destiny and landfill.”

Bruton acknowledges the shifting global landscape and how it’s affected recycling everywhere.

“It’s been a tough recycling year,” she said. “But it looks like it’s gonna turn around. It could take one to three years. There’s just gonna be a change. The material needs to be cleaner.”

Helen Peplowski, Winston-Salem’s sustainability manager, also told TCB via email that the city’s recycling practices will not be changing.

“We do not have any plans currently to remove glass from our recycling program,” Peplowski said. “The recent market changes will also not immediately impact our recycling program in Winston-Salem as it pertains to residents.”

Marriott says he’s not sure if Greensboro will ever collect glass in the residential curbside recycling cans again. He hopes the changes prod residents to reflect on the impact of their consumption patterns.

“Each individual’s action does affect everyone else,” he said. “I urge residents to understand that their individual actions matter to the whole. Everyone’s behavior matters in this thing.”

To learn more about the city’s recent recycling changes, visit the city’s website or download the GSO Collects app on your smartphone. 

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