The Challenges of Recycling in Surprise


by Austin Palmer

In an early April city council meeting in Surprise, Arizona public officials discussed the problems with recycling that the city currently faces as well as possible solutions to those problems.

New challenges regarding recycling arose when The Ministry of Environmental Protection of the People’s Republic of China informed the World Trade Organization that effective January 1st of 2018 that it would ban the import of 24 recyclable commodities such as unsorted mixed paper and mixed plastics. In addition to outright banning 24 types of recyclable goods for import, they also raised the contamination threshold of the imports to a mere half of a percent.

Julie Reyes, director of public sector solutions for Waste Management, explains the impact these changes could have on Surprise, “In a ton of recycled goods the 0.5% contamination level is equal to ten pounds. Our contamination level today from our Surprise residents is about 27% or around 540 pounds.” This excess of contamination has led to some serious problems with exporting our recyclable materials to be processed.

The contamination of recyclables is a very serious problem facing the industry, but it can be avoided. For example, cleaning out a milk carton, ketchup bottle, pickle jar, or any other food items that are recyclable can prevent the leftover waste in those containers from leaking and contaminating other recyclables that are already on the truck.

This little bit of extra effort by each household could help drastically reduce the 27% contamination rate of Surprise recycled goods down towards the required 0.5%.

Contamination is not the only problem that Surprise is currently facing in the recycling industry. On top of the lowered contamination requirements, China also banned the import of mixed paper. This is having an impact on Surprise, particularly because 25% of the recyclables that go through the processing facility are mixed paper and China is not accepting any mixed papers.

There are a few different solutions that can help aid the challenges facing recycling in Surprise. Julie Reyes of Waste Management said, “We are looking for other international markets obviously to try and divert materials away from China so we’ve been sending some of our stuff to Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, and India.”

She stressed the point that Waste Management and the City of Surprise were going to try and find other solutions to the problem before asking the public to change what they can recycle.

Another important solution that can aid in the challenges of recycling is the education of the public. Mike Gent, Public Works Director for the City of Surprise, said, “The three key things that our residents can do differently with recycling that would help us recycle all their empty bottles, cans, and paper. Remove food and liquids so they do not contaminate the recycling and the big one is to keep plastic bags out of recycling.”

However, Mike added that education alone was not sufficient and that enforcement is also key in getting citizens to recycle properly. In order to help citizens, the city will check recyclables and leave notes on bins to help the residents correct anything they may be doing wrong.

Despite all of the complications to recycling, it is still absolutely worthwhile. According to Mike Gent, in January of 2018 alone the amount of recycling saved around 8,000 trees, 3,000 cubic yards of landfill space, 2 million kWh of electricity, over 4 million gallons of water, and avoided over 2,500 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the increased difficulty of recycling properly, it is well worth the effort in Surprise and other cities as a large number of resources can be reused and it helps reduce the amount of waste that is put into landfills.