Joseph Kalpakoff walked the perimeter of his recycling plant on Elm Avenue in Fresno pointing out the bales of cardboard, mixed paper and sorted plastics.
The chief executive of Mid Valley Disposal said he’s got 3,000 tons of paper stacked up when a couple years ago he’d have about 500 tons. The problem boils down to one thing, a reduction in demand for recycled content.
“Can’t get rid of it,” he said. “There’s a glut of material on the markets.”
And when his company, which services Sanger and 27 other municipalities including about half Fresno’s businesses, can find a buyer, the price paid is a fraction of what it had been.
The culprit isn’t any one thing. But a big player is China, which changed the rules of what it accepts in January 2018 drastically reducing imports. Rebecca Beitsch of the Washington Post reported earlier this year that the move by the People’s Republic has affected rural and small-town residents more than bigger cities that have the financial wherewithal to better shield their populations.
The downward trend in prices and demand for recycled plastics, paper and metals comes at an inopportune time for California, which has a goal to recycle 75 percent of its waste statewide by 2020. Assembly Bill 341 took effect July 1, 2012, and CalRecycle, the state agency tasked with overseeing the effort, said 23 million tons will need to be “recycled, reduced or composted” to meet that goal. The agency estimated California will generate about 80 million tons of solid waste next year.
Unfortunately, the percentage of trash diverted from garbage bins statewide has been on the decline since the China-inspired market shift, dropping from about 52 percent to about 41 percent, Kalpakoff said.
That leaves recyclers in a tough spot.
Kalpakoff said his company is better positioned than some to weather the crisis. In 2014, Mid Valley Disposal purchased Sunset Waste and its 12-year-old recycling sorting system. Two years later, Mid Valley designed an entirely new system and installed it in 2017. The improved facility processes 35 tons of recycled trash an hour, compared with the previous system's 15 tons per hour.
The new system has optical sorters that can determine different grades of plastics, polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, compared to high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, for instance.
But the machines, while highly efficient, large and complex, can’t do it all. Crews are required to separate out all the contaminants, and a series of them is used throughout the long and complex network of sorters and conveyors.
The process begins with a large loader outfitted with wide tires that have no tread, dumping bucket after bucket into the first bin. From there, the material moves to a pick line staffed by fast-moving workers Kalpakoff refers to as his A Team. These skilled individuals pull out the debris that should never have been placed in a recycling bin.
While Kalpakoff stood watch, workers pulled out green waste, tarps, couch cushions, a big baby car seat, trash bags, car parts and assorted other debris that could possibly jam the next sorting machine and cause costly delays.
“These guys pull everything that will jamb up the production line,” he said.
They move so fast that they likely need no trip to the gym. They burn enough calories to develop arms and abs of steel.
And just for clarity, certain things should never go into a recycling bin. That list includes Styrofoam anything, plastic buckets, batteries (Kalpakoff said lithium batteries in trash have been known to cause fires), garden hoses, anything with cords, clothes, diapers and plastic packaging, wrap and bags.
From the A Team, the trash heads to a sorter that pulverizes the glass, which makes up about 10 percent of the overall recycled trash haul. Another sorter peels off cardboard. Another separates mixed paper. And so it goes.
Down the line, additional sorters pull out stuff that shouldn’t be there. They move fast, scanning the conveyors constantly.
Kalpakoff said he and his staff have made the system as efficient as possible. However, other factors also have influenced cost by increasing required manpower and forcing the line to slow down. Kalpakoff called it the Amazon effect.
“The waste stream has changed,” he said.
Shipping companies like Amazon may be convenient, but they send boxes filled with plastic wrap and other packing materials, some of which cannot be recycled. While they’ve gotten better, the trend toward sending large paper envelopes with plastic bubble wrap glued inside creates another problem. They must be tossed.
“It’s multi material stuff,” Kalpakoff said. He said other containers like retort pouches for baby food or yogurt also cannot be recycled and must go straight into the trash.
And that trend of non-recyclable consumer product has further complicated the process.
“We have to slow our machine down and add more people,” Kalpakoff said.
China allowed a 5 percent to 10 percent contamination in its recycled imports until its National Sword policy dropping the allowed rate to 0.5 percent and banning the importation of most plastic waste. A study published in the Science Advances journal in June 2018 by Amy L. Brooks, Shunli Wang and Jenna R. Jambeck said, “An estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced with the new Chinese policy by 2030. As 89 percent of historical exports consist of polymer groups often used in single-use plastic food packaging, bold global ideas and actions for reducing quantities of non recyclable materials, redesigning products and funding domestic plastic waste management are needed.”
“China takes about 80 to 85 percent of all recycled goods,” Kalpakoff said. “We relied on them completely for the last 20 years.”
Paper mills once operated along the West Coast but have since mostly disappeared. “As they shut down, we lost the ability to recycle paper products,” he said.
And while domestic markets may sound like an answer, Kalpakoff said permitting and delays likely wouldn’t produce any manufacturing markets at least in California for at least a decade and maybe longer.
“It’s a challenge right now,” he said. “Our processing cost drove up 20 percent.”
Meanwhile, the price paid for materials dropped about 75 percent, he said.
Mid Valley Disposal launched its Keep It Simple education campaign with advertisements to lower the amount of non-recyclables people throw in their bins. And it’s worked.
“Our jurisdictions are 35 percent,” Kalpakoff said, referring to the amount by volume that doesn’t belong. “Others may be up to 50 percent.”
Solutions as to who will pay for this increased operating cost is also complex. Trash haulers are regulated and must propose any rate increase like a utility, justifying the bump with market analysis and going through various studies before any increase can be approved.
Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman from Stockton recently submitted a bill that would allow California to reinvest in recycling and composting to bolster the market for recycled goods domestically. The proposed California Recycling Market Development Act, or Assembly bill 1583, would create “a sustainable recycling infrastructure that is more resistant to the impacts of foreign markets and creates jobs at home,” according to supporters in a letter to Assembly Natural Resources Committee chairwoman Laura Friedman.
The measure would develop incentive programs for paper and organic waste and establish a commission on recycling markets comprised of local governments and private sector recyclers.
Julie Corbett, founder and president of Ecologic Brands Inc. in Manteca, oversees one of the few California companies that takes recycled materials and turns it into product. The company bills itself as the producer of the “only commercially viable paper bottles made from recycled materials.” The website shows a cross section of one of the “bottles,” revealing a paper exterior and plastic liner.
Corbett said both are made from recycled materials. She said the market continues to grow and mentioned a couple of customers, Loreal and Unilever. “It’s going very well,” she said. “We buy domestic everything.”
Loreal has launched an entire brand around the packaging, she said. Ecologic has been around since 2008 and opened a manufacturing plant in 2013. Corbett said many major brands have received intense pressure from consumers to do more with recycled materials. As a result, “everybody’s trying to do it,” she said.
But there are challenges. Big ones. “It’s much more expensive to deal with recycled material,” Corbett said. Virgin plastics used in the manufacture of first generation PET bottles, for instance, are clear and consistent. Corbett said consumers have to learn to accept flaws in how their packaging looks. “It’s not going to be perfectly clear,” she said. “Consumers need to adapt. It’s a big cultural shift.”
Mid Valley Disposal processes 85,000 tons of material a year. In Sanger in 2018, the company’s trucks collected 11,350 tons of solid waste, 2,450 tons of recycling and 4,185 tons of green waste.
The company recently announced its recycler of the year to be AutoZone, saying the award was given to the company that makes “a difference in our environment by reducing waste, recycling and conserving resources in communities.”
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