In the wake of last week's announcement that the City of Lexington will no longer recycle paper products, the Pulaski County Recycling Center wants to reassure local customers that this county has no plans to follow suit.
On May 14, Lexington announced that materials including office paper, newspapers, magazines, cereal boxes, paper rolls and other paper-based products should be put into trash cans rather than recycling bins. Dry cardboard will still be accepted.
Lexington officials hope the move is temporary and that the market for recycled paper picks up after a change in the global marketplace. Many cities across the country have suspended recycling operations all together after China upped its standards for the cleanliness of recycling materials it would buy.
While the Lexington recycling center also processes recyclables for a dozen other cities and counties in the Bluegrass area, Pulaski County has its own operation and is not affected by the stoppage.
"We're going to continue to take all the products that we take," Danny Masten, Pulaski County Recycling and Solid Waste Coordinator, said. "We will not go off that course; we have an end-buyer for all of our materials."
Masten said his office first started getting questions around Christmas when 60 Minutes aired a segment on plastics in the Pacific. Those questions have increased since Lexington's announcement, but he noted that the industry has always been cyclical in nature. He joined the recycling center in 2012, witnessing a slow down the following year and into 2014. Now prices for cardboard and paper are dropping again, with Masten saying it's the lowest he's seen since joining department.
"What's really sparked what's going on right now is that China has stopped taking a lot of recycling materials that they had taken in the past," Masten said, adding that coastal areas have been particularly affected. "They were taking a lot of that scrap plastic that was not generally the type that we take.…That was part of the issue."
Masten added that the industry has also been affected by petroleum prices. "When we see the price of fuel fall below $3 a gallon…then it's cheaper for a lot of these companies in the world and in the United States to make new plastic out of fresh virgin material than to go buy recycled material," he explained. "Of course we know the bottom dollar is the driving force behind this in general."
Those economic forces have resulted in a domestic market flooded with recyclables. While that's not great in the short term, Masten believes the situation can ultimately make the United States stronger. According to one industry magazine, 18 mills are increasing capacity in response to China's ban.
"A lot of these old mills that were recycling back years ago are reopening," Masten said. "They're getting retrofitted to the 21st century, so in the long run, the American recycling process is going to be stronger. It's just right now, we're waiting to get all that up online…
"Hopefully we're seeing the bottom," he said of paper prices, adding some in the industry predict prices will start to climb at the end of the year.
With fewer landfills available to store refuse, Masten believes that the world will have to come up with a better way to either recycle or compost. "In general, it comes down to a lot of companies are going to have to make recycle-friendly packaging," he said. "At some point, we're going to look and not have any landfills to put this stuff in and there's going to be a generation that going to have to figure out…what they're going to do with their materials."
That's one reason Pulaski is determined to stay the course with its recycling program, even if it comes to not making a profit. While cardboard is down, Masten said white paper is holding steady. Newspaper prices fluctuate, particularly depending on quality (lack of contamination). Plastics used for soda bottles don't sell as well as milk jugs. Steel has gone up a bit, Masten continued, while aluminum cans have been on the low side but steady for about a year.
"Right now looking at the landscape, we're doing well," Masten continued. "Pulaski County is on rate again to have another record year in recycling, so we're just going to continue on with the volume of material that we have coming in. We feel pretty comfortable with our overall process."
As far as cleanliness of recyclables, Masten said his department prides itself on providing the best product possible -- keeping contamination to less than five percent as compared to some other places where it could be as high as 40-50 percent. He's been reassured by companies in Chicago and Knoxville that they are comfortable with Pulaski's product. That's a testament to the center's 36 employees as well as the community, he added. While it's hard to gauge the number of citizens who drop off their recycling directly to the center or at community bins such as the one in Walmart's parking lot, curbside service stands at more than 12,000 participating homes and businesses.
"They're to be commended," Masten said. "That's why we can do what we can do, because of the people: 1. the community buying into our program; 2. our employees doing a great job; and 3. the support that we get from our 109 board and from our Fiscal Court.
"We just want our community to know that we're here; we're going to stay steady and strong; and keep on providing the best service that we can," he concluded.