In 2017, China, formerly the world’s No. 1 destination for recyclable waste, cracked down on the quality of materials shipped from around the globe to manufacturers inside its borders. In the United States, that’s led to a glut in supply and drop in the value of plastic, glass, and cardboard.

These changes have led San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management Department to shift its messaging when it comes to what people should put in their blue recycling bins, according to David Newman, the department’s director. The department has revamped its webpage and launched a phone app in the hopes of getting people to focus on disposing only of core products: paper, plastic containers, aluminum, and glass containers.

“Ten years ago, we were really pushing people to recycle: ‘Give us as much as you can give us.’” Newman said in a phone interview this month. “Today, we’re pushing quality. We’re saying, ‘We want your recyclables, but we want you to do it correctly.’ We can only take these things that are acceptable in our program, and that’s how we sustain the recycling business.”

Bigger changes lie ahead as the City considers what to do about a recycling processing contract that expires in 2024. Local solid waste entrepreneurs say it could be an opportunity to think more broadly about what they call the circular economy, where materials formerly seen as waste can be reborn as useful products.

“We can’t recycle our way out of the problem,” said Kate Gruy Jaceldo, whose Compost Queens business offers organic disposal options for homes and businesses and provides compost in return.

Before 2017, the sales of recyclable material fully offset the cost of processing bottles, cans, containers, cardboard, and paper, Newman told the City Council’s Committee Health and Equity Committee in October. Now, recycling costs the City $13 per ton, Newman said.

Fortunately, that’s still cheaper than the disposing of waste in a local landfill, which costs the City $25 per ton, he said. But that could change when the current contract expires in 2024.

Newman said Solid Waste has enough time to carefully weigh three options to process San Antonio’s recycling tonnage:

It could extend its current contract with Republic Services, which along with Waste Management is one of the two main players in the North American solid waste industry.

It could put out a request for proposals for a new contractor. Waste Management also owns a processing facility in the San Antonio area, and smaller competitors could also see an opportunity to step into a new market.

A third option would be for the City to build its own processing center and either staff it with City employees or contractors, Newman said.

“If we were to go with new contractor or build a facility, there’s a lot of lead time ahead, a couple of years, and then we have to go through a whole contracting process,” Newman said. “That’s why we’re starting early, and at this point that’s three years out.”

Solid Waste officials plan to bring more details to the Community Health and Equity Committee in late March, he said.

Asked whether San Antonio residents could see their waste fees go up because of higher recycling costs, Newman didn’t rule it out, though he said it’s not the main expense in the department’s $150 million budget.

“It’s just a little too early to tell at this point, but it is not a dominant factor of our expenses,” Newman said.

‘Getting really creative about uses’

Owning its own processing center could offer the City some intriguing opportunities that might be harder to achieve when contracting the work to a third party, according to Christopher Moken, a former solid waste coordinator with the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG). Working for AACOG, which covers a 13-county region, Moken got a wide-ranging view of the recycling crisis in the San Antonio region.

“If the City does go the route of doing their own facility, that could be very interesting from the point of view of being able to utilize some of the newer technologies out there as far as source-separating materials,” Moken said.

Moken described a system in Eskilstuna, Sweden, where residents separate their waste into seven different color-coded bags and rely on a machine to sort them by sight. The city has been called the “world capital of recycling” and boasts some of the lowest landfill rates on the planet.

The U.S. “really shot itself in the foot” by moving toward commingling its recycling, Moken said. Commingling is when all recycled products are collected in one container, with the job of separating them shifted to the processing center. The system is more convenient for residents but causes problems with contamination when people mix recyclables and non-recyclable waste.

Ultimately, the focus needs to be on the corporations that manufacture the materials in the first place, Moken said.

“We really need to be having a conversation about forcing the manufacturers to at least take on some sort of standardization, whether it’s the same colors or the same kind of materials and just make it easier for the downstream recyclers and easier for consumers,” Moken said.

Moken is the founder of Re-Mat, a nonprofit focused on keeping used mattresses out of the landfill. Re-Mat launched two and a half years ago, and Moken has struggled to find $100,000 in funding and an affordable lease agreement on a 10,000-square-foot facility needed to begin recycling up to 20,000 mattresses in his first year.

In California, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, legislatures have required mattress manufacturers to pool their resources and create statewide recycling programs. Residents can visit and find disposal sites near them.

“That, unfortunately, normally has to happen at a state level,” Moken said. “I don’t see that happening anytime soon in Texas, which is kind of a shame.”

On a local level, Jaceldo said that there’s still “potential for a lot of products to become something else.” City officials could look to the local startup talent base for help, she said.

“With all these City tech programs that are building entrepreneurs, put them on the waste stream,” she said. “We either have to incentivize keeping the materials away [from the waste stream] to begin with or getting really creative about uses.”

Quality over quantity

One sign of changes in recycling is how Solid Waste officials are thinking about the City’s recycling goals.

In October, Newman told council members that San Antonio appears to be well short of its 2010 goal of diverting 60 percent of its waste from local landfills by 2025. In the City’s 2020 fiscal year, the rate of recycled, composted, and mulched waste was 36 percent, Newman said.

Still, that’s far above a former rate of only 7 percent in 2010. Diversion rate might not even be the best way to measure success anymore.

“We know that the 60 percent goal is a good goal, it is technically achievable, but it would have to be done in a very perfect scenario,” Newman said.

For now, Solid Waste has shifted emphasis from quantity to quality, something that experts say is essential to reduce contamination, when the wrong items end up in the recycling stream.

But it’s proven difficult for even the most recycling-savvy to keep track of what’s acceptable. Even Jaceldo, whose business involves keeping waste out of landfills, admitted she struggles to keep up with exactly what’s recyclable and what’s not.

“I do think whatever they do, there needs to be a real information campaign about it,” Jaceldo said.

For example, Solid Waste’s webpage used to state that residents could put plastic film bags inside other plastic film bags and dispose of them in their blue bins. Another formerly accepted product was clamshell-shaped take-out containers made of white polystyrene foam.

In its new education campaigns and on its webpage of recycled items, Solid Waste no longer lists those as accepted items, even though Newman said the City’s contract requires Republic to receive them at its processing center.

“It’s technically in our contract for them to accept it and for them to do the best they can to recycle them,” Newman said. “But we’re no longer pushing those, so you don’t see them advertised.”

There’s also the problem of manufacturers relying on materials that are inherently less recyclable. Speaking to council members, Newman used coffee as an example, saying its packaging has shifted from highly recyclable aluminum tins to less recyclable plastic cylinders and, more recently, to foil bags that can only end up in the landfill.

Another example is newspapers, driven to near-extinction in the waste stream by the rise of digital media and decline of print journalism.

“It used to be 10 years ago that newspapers, which are very heavy, made up a big chunk of our recycling,” Newman said. “Today, you can’t find any newspapers. There are very few there.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.