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KNAU and Arizona News

Flagstaff Recycling Industry Still Adjusting to Tighter Rules on Plastics

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Ryan Heinsius
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A lot more plastic is ending up in U.S. landfills after China stopped importing many kinds of recyclables last year. The City of Flagstaff, for instance, now only accepts limited types of plastic, and has undergone a campaign to educate the public about what’s recyclable and what’s not. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius visited Norton Environmental Materials Recovery Facility and spoke with Office Manager Carrie Tupper about people’s use of plastic since the changes.

Ryan Heinsius: What are you guys seeing as far as plastics coming in? What proportion of the recyclables are plastics?

Carrie Tupper: There’s a great deal that are plastics. We take plastics number one and number two in the shape of a bottle, jug or jar. But we get a lot of the hard plastics, we get furniture, we get kid’s toys, we get sort of just, still, a mixture of everything, three through seven and everything that has plastic in it. So we know a lot of education has been done and we’re very grateful for that, but I get calls every day, which is wonderful too, of people asking, what do you take and what can I put in there? We’re still doing a lot more education.

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Credit Ryan Heinsius
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A worker at Norton Environmental separates recyclable plastic from non-recyclables.

RH: I think the term was wish-cycling, wish-recycling?

CT: Yes, wish-cycling. That’s our biggest problem here. We get so much contamination in the recyclables, that the sorters up here are so busy pulling out contaminants that they could let actual materials that could be recycled go through the line. So, it causes a real problem here. And then, if I’m very careful about recycling and you’re not, your contaminants can contaminate what I put in my recycling. It’s a problem that kind of compounds itself exponentially when everything gets mixed together in the recycling trucks.

RH: And it seems one major part of the equation—maybe the most major part of the equation—is just usage. Have you gotten a sense that people locally are being more conscious about their plastic use or are even trying to reduce what they use or change their buying habits?

CT: I think there is a definite community of Flagstaff residents out there who are very aware and who making efforts to change their buying habits and their product use to use less plastics, which is wonderful. Overall, I think there still are a lot of people who aren’t even aware yet that they should be looking at that or thinking about that, so it makes it difficult.

RH: What conversations are happening in the recycling industry, in the recycling business, of how to move forward and how to contend with this plastic problem that has been the talk of a lot of people in the last year or so?

CT: I know a lot of the conversations that I have been involved in and have heard about have involved the need for more domestic mills to process those plastics. They were all being shipped overseas previously. And with China’s ban—the “National Sword” initiative that China enacted—they no longer take those and so we have a domestic surplus of all this material that has nowhere to go. So the domestic mills that are in existence are being inundated with materials, with requests from recovery facilities all across the country saying, we have a surplus of this now we want you to take it, but the mills have a surplus too. There’s only so much they can process and so much they can handle. So we definitely have a need for more domestic mills to be able to process these materials.

The other side of that is that there has been a lot of talk about producers, and when they make their products and how they package them, and that they need to either stop using plastics to package their materials or use a higher combination of recycled plastic with the virgin plastic to make it more cost effective and to make the program actually work again.

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