Out of sight, out of mind

The quest to find out what happens to Boulder County recycling

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Like most waste processing facilities in the U.S., Boulder County’s recycling center sits on the edge of town; its multi-story industrial frame and paved grounds sprinkled with rogue, colorful litter are just far enough away from the tourists, yet close enough for locals to drop off the occasional hard-to-recycle product. 

I biked over there one hot afternoon two years ago, chasing news of smoke plumes pouring from one of the recycling center’s bays. Eco-Cycle, the building’s eponymous nonprofit, has been operating the County’s Materials Reclamation Facility (MRF) since it first opened in 2001. The MRF is the central processing plant that receives, separates and prepares all the recyclable materials collected within Boulder County, which Eco-Cycle then sells to various mills and end-user manufacturers that do the actual work of repurposing the materials. Bay 1, where stacks of recycling materials are sorted, was supposedly on fire.

This was 2019, the second summer that the U.S. waste industry had spent recalibrating its relationship with recyclable materials, namely plastic and paper. At the beginning of 2018, China had stopped buying the bulk of the U.S. and European Union’s recyclable goods, causing major parts of the global recycling industry to crash. And though Boulder County’s recycling operation is designed in ways critically different from most other operations, Eco-Cycle wasn’t spared some of the effects of China’s international bombshell. 

According to Yale Environment 360, prior to China’s ban, 95% of plastics collected in the E.U. and 70% in the U.S. had been sold and shipped to Chinese processors. Some domestic processing opportunities did exist, but the systems at large were drastically underdeveloped compared to the operations across Eastern Asia. So when China stopped buying and hauling away recyclable materials, the amount of plastics within the U.S. ballooned. 

The impacts of this international policy change trickled quickly down to local levels. Like nearly every recycling operation in the U.S. that summer, Eco-Cycle was still waiting for the domestic infrastructure to catch up to an extreme surge in domestic supply. County residents hadn’t slowed their use or disposal of recyclable materials, however, so Eco-Cycle kept collecting and eventually began storing the excess goods on the MRF property as it waited out the industry’s storm; hence the stockpile extending from the bays, baking in the heat, ripe for a fire. 

By the time I arrived at Eco-Cycle, temperatures were topping 90 degrees and sweat poured down my back. But instead of smoke and flames, I found swirling eddies of dark, greasy water carrying soggy, wet scraps of cardboard and bottle caps through the paved lots surrounding the MRF. The fire department had stomped out the emergency in seven minutes. 

The staff had been evacuated and sent home, the firetrucks had headed back to town, and an eerie quiet set in. I circumnavigated the MRF’s perimeter, examining the neatly stacked bales of cleaned-and-sorted, ready-to-ship recyclables, the vast majority left untouched by what turned out to be a small fire. Altogether, they looked like a giant lego structure, blocks stacked high as single-story houses. How much longer would the bales be there, I wondered, and where exactly would they go? 

Reports of U.S. municipalities pausing collections or ditching recycling programs altogether had been circulating in the news at the time. “It’s a day-to-day battle of moving this material,” the owner of a large-scale MRF in California had reported to its state’s Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery. “We can only warehouse it so long and then it has to go to landfill.”

From Oregon to Arizona to New York, municipalities had been feeling the recycling industry buckle beneath them for months. Recycling policies began adapting and many operations resorted to landfilling at least some of what came to their facilities. Yet, Eco-Cycle maintained it would continue business-as-usual and could weather the storm. 

“If you put a recyclable in your bin, it’s getting recycled in Boulder County. You don’t have to worry about your recyclables being landfilled,” Darla Arians, manager of Boulder County’s Resource Conservation Division, told me that summer. “In our county, we’re absolutely, absolutely recycling every piece of recyclable material that comes to our door.”

But questions began to rise as I surveyed the quiet, overstuffed MRF. How could Eco-Cycle survive when other systems were crumbling? The value of a recyclable material (and how easy it is to sell or move the material) is subject, like any other commodity, to forces that fluctuate like rollercoasters. In theory, it’s a market governed by supply and demand, and success in the industry relies heavily on institutional knowledge, networking, luck and, to some degree, secrecy. We may never know for certain exactly where Boulder County’s recycling ends up, and that’s by design. 

Photo courtesy Boulder County Resource Conservation Division.

The sword swoosh heard ‘round the world

Before China restricted the import of plastics and paper (known as Operation National Sword), its Chinese processors turned U.S. and E.U. plastic waste into pellets and shreds that Chinese product manufacturers could repurpose. For a while, it was a mutually-beneficial system, as China was shipping loads of manufactured goods to the U.S. and E.U., then could fill its ships with recyclable materials for the return journey. The country’s low labor costs and high demand for recyclable materials made these relationships profitable. Then came single-stream recycling and the U.S.-China Trade War. 

Operation National Sword, China claimed, was a reaction to rising levels of contamination among recyclable materials from the U.S. and the E.U. Single-stream recycling had eliminated the burden on residents to sort their materials in different waste bins (according to type of paper, glass, plastic or metal) and while this improved household participation in recycling programs and cut costs in the collection process, it also added the cost of cross-contamination — people “wish-cycling,” for example (throwing non-recyclable items in the recycling bin with the hope that they can be recycled), or leaving food residue in containers. 

While China had been buying recyclable plastics, it had been receiving more and more non-recyclable waste mixed in, adding the extra chore of waste extraction and disposal. 

With Operation National Sword, China restricted imports to only the cleanest, highest-grade materials, imposing a 99.5% “purity standard,” which “most exporters found all-but impossible to meet,” Cheryl Katz reported in 2019 for Yale Environment 360. China’s decision “to no longer be the dumping ground for the world’s recycled waste” left municipalities and waste companies critically examining their systems, provoking a necessary referendum on the realities and sustainability of recycling. 

Cue major news outlets untangling the concept of recycling as the poster child of U.S. global warming mitigation strategies with headlines like NPRs “So, Should We Recycle?”; the Wall Street Journal’s “Help, We’re Drowning in Recycling!”; and Insider’s “Recycling Plastic Is Probably Not Worth It.”

“Even before China’s ban, only 9 percent of discarded plastics were being recycled, while 12 percent were burned. The rest were buried in landfills or simply dumped and left to wash into rivers and oceans,” Katz writes. “The recycling crisis triggered by China’s ban could have an upside, experts say, if it leads to better solutions for managing the world’s waste, such as expanding processing capacities in North America and Europe, and spurring manufacturers to make their products more easily recyclable.”

In the few years since Operation National Sword, new solutions for plastic waste in particular have emerged, and policies local to Boulder County have been put to the test.

How Eco-Cycle survived

Within the waste industry, Rick Kattar comes with pedigree. At one point his dad owned 26 processing facilities across the country, and from the family home in Laurel, Maryland, Kattar began managing four MRFs of his own. “I always wanted to work in a white hat industry, and recycling fit for me,” he says. 

Now decades later, after retiring from the family business, moving to Colorado, starting a consulting company, and re-entering the field as “MRF Expert” for Boulder County’s Resource Conservation Division five years ago, Kattar describes himself as the County’s “institutional knowledge.”

It’s a title that fits. In a July 2021 interview, Kattar joined our video-call in a dark-green T-shirt, a worn baseball cap pulled over his white hair. A tall, vibrant houseplant sat on his desk. “When China shut off [the U.S.’s out-flow of recyclable materials], it created a huge problem,” he says. But because the County had spent the preceding years reexamining and restructuring Eco-Cycle, its problems were different than other waste management systems. 

According to Kattar and Arians, at the time Operation National Sword took effect, Boulder County didn’t have relationships with Chinese processors. Eco-Cycle had already been selling the County’s recycling to a variety of North American mills, so when all the other waste managers in the U.S. pivoted to the same mills, “We were suddenly competing with them,” Kattar explains. 

When selling recyclable materials, the competition boils down to quality (who has the cleanest and best-sorted materials) and relationships (what contracts were negotiated, which brokers used) — two operational aspects the County had been sharpening for years prior to China’s ban. 

In addition, the County concluded a series of major technological upgrades in 2017 with the installation of a multi-million-dollar optical sorting machine that reduced Eco-Cycle’s operating costs in multiple ways. It also improved the system’s efficiency and precision, thus increasing the processing speeds of high-quality materials while also reducing the workforce required to run the MRF. 

When Kattar joined the County’s Resource Conservation Division, he directed Eco-Cycle to seek long-term contracts that “put us in a position of security.” In such a rollercoaster industry, contracts act as stabilizing forces by establishing fixed prices for materials. (“At any given moment in time, month over month, the value of a commodity could drop substantially or rise substantially, and you’re at the whims of that as a business,” which is not a new side effect of Operation National Sword, says Kattar.) Eco-Cycle might not make as much money as other MRFs when certain commodity prices are high, but by the same virtue, it won’t lose as much when prices tank. 

But I want to know about end-markets — where, exactly, my Gatorade bottle ends up after I toss it in my recycling bin in Boulder County. When I requested records from the County, the names of any brokers or mills the County does business with were redacted. While frustrating, the redactions aren’t nefarious, just a byproduct of business: sharing brokers and mills could jeopardize Eco-Cycle’s competitive edge over other MRFs. Kattar says I may never be able to verify the final destination of my plastic bottle. To some degree, we have to trust what the County’s brokers tell the staff, and what the staff tell us — its an effect of having a competition-based market system for our recyclables. 

“[The brokers] assure us that they’re going to the places they tell us they’re going, and we have the right to check, but we don’t get into their knickers,” Kattar says. “You’d be really surprised how we’ll be selling tons into one mill, and I’ll go to a broker and they can find a backdoor into the same mill and get a better price.”

Preceding China’s ban, the County had also redrawn its contract with Eco-Cycle for the first time since 2001. This shifted Eco-Cycle from a cost-plus contract to a fee-based contract, which caused Eco-Cycle to assume control of its own finances and operate using the MRF’s income as an enterprise, rather than charging the County for all its costs. 

“They’re operating very efficiently because they are now cost-driven. They’ve got to think ahead and they have to budget more intensely,” Kattar says.

The County has made efforts to prioritize processing volume over profits by keeping the fees for using the facility low. “We’re trying to bring in more volume rather than bringing in more profit,” Kattar explains. “We’re keeping our costs controlled so that we attract more tons and keep them from going to the landfill.”

Altogether, Kattar says, “We’re so much more of a business than most municipal plants, it’s kooky.” But that’s, in part, how it has survived. 

Boulder County/Eco-Cycle’s optical sorting machine. Photo courtesy Boulder County Resource Conservation Division.

The future of recycling

This combination of investments in cutting-edge technology, restructuring the business, prioritizing contracts, educating the community about and implementing programs like Universal Zero Waste, and maintaining low processing fees has kept Boulder at the top of the state’s recycling performance metrics for years. In the fourth-annual “State of Recycling and Composting in Colorado’’ report published at the end of 2020, Boulder County again bested other counties on the Front Range with 37% of municipal waste being recycled (second only on the state level to Pitkin County with a 38% recycling rate). 

Statewide, however, recycling rates dropped to 15.9% in 2019, down from 17.2% in 2018, and Colorado continues to lag far behind the national recycling rate of 35%. “On average, Colorado residents recycle and compost only 1.1 pounds per person per day, while residents in leading states like Oregon and Washington recycle 3 pounds per person per day — nearly three times more than Colorado residents,” the report states.

It’s clear recycling plays an important role in reducing the demand for virgin resources, drawing down emissions and mitigating climate change, but the last five years of upheaval in the market have shown the current state of recycling is not enough. Even in Boulder County there’s room for improvement as far as increasing input volume and community participation go. 

To boost recycling rates on a state level, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment published a literature review on July 1 for the Colorado General Assembly that investigates the topic of producer responsibility programs, which could shift the costs of recycling onto manufacturers and away from taxpayers — adding significant funding streams to recycling operations and the ability to expand proven participation-enhancement strategies like curbside pickup. In doing so, the state would be following Maine, which became the first in the country to pass legislation requiring an extended producer responsibility program for packaging products this July. And Oregon isn’t far behind. 

Recycling isn’t the end-all-be-all solution to climate change, but it’s a piece of the larger puzzle. While I may not know exactly where my recycling ends up, I can understand it in the context of capitalism, subject to market forces and institutional networking. To throw a Gatorade bottle in my recycling bin is to participate in an intricate, international, profit-driven industry; it’s what’s available to us now, but it’s far from perfect.

After that hot summer day at Eco-Cycle in 2019, I found a small news story in the Daily Camera: “After whatever is damaged is repaired, they should be OK,” a firefighter told a reporter who’d evidently beat me to the MRF. The stockpile is gone now, but the recycling keeps coming in. 

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