If you haven’t been to the Community Recycling Center yet this week, you’ll need to sort through everything carefully from now on before you drop off any items.
As of Monday, June 18, the center at 1000 Sand Flats Road is no longer accepting numerous materials, including #1 plastic “clamshell” food containers; #2 colored plastics; #3 through #7 plastic; mixed paper; and newspaper.
It will continue to process other forms of #1 plastic; #2 plastic milk jugs; aluminum and tin cans; higher-grade office paper; corrugated cardboard and commercial newsprint. At the same time, unsorted glass will still be diverted to the Moab Landfill, where it’s used as a cover material to reduce windborne soil loss.
The reasons behind the shift are complicated and begin halfway around the world, starting with the Chinese government's widely reported crackdown on imported recyclables from the U.S. and other nations to that country’s processing facilities.
At the local level, the district is grappling with higher costs to operate the center, along with chronic staffing shortages and the continued declines in the value of some materials. It’s not always efficient to ship certain materials from a remote rural community like Moab, so district officials also factored the question of greenhouse gas emissions into their decision, according to Solid Waste Special Service District Manager Deborah Barton.
“We had to do something, and we had to do it now,” Barton told the Moab Sun News.
Moab City Council member Kalen Jones, who serves as the city’s representative on the district’s governing board, said that officials have to prioritize operations at the Moab and Klondike landfills.
“Our primary responsibility is to keep the landfills working, so we are (pursuing) options to ensure the stability of landfill operations,” Jones said.
District employees will work with curbside recycling service Green Solutions to process that business’ flow of recycled materials through early July, and Barton said they will also help local residents and visitors dispose of materials that can no longer be recycled there.
“We will try to be as responsive as possible when people come in, understanding that they’re trying to do a good thing,” she said.
In addition to limiting the kinds of materials it accepts, the solid waste district is pursuing other big changes at the recycling center.
Effective July 1, it will begin to close the facility by 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Officials are also considering the possibility of shuttering the drop-off site at least one day during the week to give their employees time to clean up and process a backlog of materials on site.
However, a weekday closure is not as easy as it sounds, Barton said, given the presence of other county offices on the property that are open to the public.
“I don't know how we're going to accomplish that,” she said.
“WE CAN’T CONTINUE AT THIS RATE”
Even with an infusion this year of $400,000 in Transient Room Tax (TRT) revenue from overnight accommodations — and the implementation of fees on commercial users — Barton noted that the recycling center is still losing money annually. With no funding from property taxes, she anticipates that individual recycling fees are on the horizon.
"Somehow, we’re going to have to figure out how to get this supported," she said.
Staffing remains one of the center’s biggest challenges moving forward: Two of the district’s six full-time positions are currently vacant, and it’s not uncommon for the district to hire new employees, only to have them walk away from the job just days later, or to leave for other reasons.
“It’s been really hellacious since January with personnel,” Barton said.
Paradoxically, fewer employees have been processing more and more material that people drop off at the center.
“Everybody wants to recycle more ... so the tonnages received are coming up more,” Barton said.
“This community does far more (in terms of recycling) than larger communities, and we can’t continue (at this rate),” she added. “Even large communities are also cutting back."
Increasingly, Barton has noticed that people are not being as careful as they used to be in terms of managing their recyclables, leading to “contamination” of some materials. In some cases, food items are being left in cans, jars and bottles, and in other instances, plastics are getting mixed in with aluminum cans — or vice versa.
“Part of the problem we have come up with is, people are becoming less and less willing to sort the materials properly,” she said.
That’s one reason why Chinese government officials have cracked down on imports of recyclables, and Barton is pleased that many people understand the situation abroad.
“People actually got the message,” she said. “They’re beginning to understand that we don’t have a lot of power, but at the same token, we shouldn’t be sending contaminated materials overseas.”
Domestically, she said, recycling mills are becoming just as demanding of materials as China has been.
“And that's a good thing,” she said.
A LEARNING CURVE FOR RECYCLING PATRONS
Grand County Council member Mary McGann, who first announced the changes during the council's June 19 meeting, said she anticipates that there will be a learning curve.
“It will take a good month or so to get the public trained,” McGann said.
For the most part, senior district operator Brandon Bertwell said that recycling center patrons are empathetic once they find out that they can no longer recycle certain items.
“A lot of them are pretty understanding about it,” Bertwell said. “They're like, ‘OK.’ They're kind of sad about us not taking all that, but what can you do?”
Moab resident Brandy Bowmaster is one of those people.
Bowmaster drops by the center every few months with her recyclables, knowing that some of the plastic materials had been diverted to the Klondike Landfill, where they're used as windbreaks.
“I think it's great that they're being creative (with the materials),” she said.
When she learned about the latest changes, Bowmaster took the news in stride.
“It's expensive having to ship everything in a rural place,” she said. “I totally understand it — it's reasonable.”
Another woman who declined to identify herself said she can understand why the center is cutting back on the kinds of materials it's recycling. Having said that, she said that if this country can put people on the moon, it should be able to process its recyclables more efficiently.
“I think it would be great if we were like Europe and had single-stream recycling right outside our doors,” the woman said. “... The U.S. could develop its own way to handle it; we just haven't.”
Barton said the reduction in recycling services can be painful at first.
“In the short run, it's like appendicitis,” she said.
But over the longer term, Barton is hopeful that the shift can lead to positive changes, such as a reduction of contaminated materials that ultimately wind up at landfills, or at processing facilities in distant countries.
“We need to come back to where we were (on the first Earth Day) in 1970, caring about the environment,” she said.
The district will continue to host its e-waste — or electronic waste — collections at the center on the second Saturday of each month from 9 a.m. to noon. For more information, visit the district's blog at www.solidwastessd1.com/blog. You can also call the district at 435-259-3867 on Mondays through Thursdays between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.