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As global recycling market crashes, Phoenix feels the crunch

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PHOENIX – As the global recycling market crashes, Arizona’s largest city is feeling the crunch.

Rick Peters, deputy director of public works for Phoenix, told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Wednesday that the net revenue of the city’s recycling program has plummeted from $350,000 a month to $50,000 a month in the last year.

The worldwide trend stems from a policy shift by China, long the planet’s leading recyclables buyer. At the beginning of the year it enacted an anti-pollution program that closed its doors to loads of waste paper, metals or plastic unless they’re 99.5 percent pure.

The resulting glut of recyclables has caused prices to plummet from levels already depressed by other economic forces, including lower prices for oil, a key ingredient in plastics.

In addition to prices going down, costs have gone up in order to meet China’s new requirements. Peters said the company Phoenix contracts for recycling has been forced to work more slowly and add employees to meet the standards.

“Really, we’ve been fortunate that up to now we’ve been able to make the spec and ship to China, even though it looks like we’re starting to add South Korea potentially as an outlet for material produced in Phoenix,” he said.

To help reduce costs, Phoenix is encouraging residents to be careful about what they put in their blue recycling bins. Items that the city doesn’t recycle – including plastic bags, pizza boxes and light bulbs — have to be sorted out, increasing processing costs.

Visit the recycling section of the city’s website for more information about what should and shouldn’t be placed the bins.

Communities and recycling companies around the country have been struggling with new reality.

Lack of markets led officials to suspend recycling programs in Gouldsboro, Maine; DeBary, Florida; Franklin, New Hampshire; and Adrian Township, Michigan. Programs have been scaled back in Flagstaff, Arizona; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and Kankakee, Illinois.

“A year ago, a bale of mixed paper was worth about $100 per ton; today we have to pay about $15 to get rid of it,” said Richard Coupland, vice president for municipal sales at Phoenix-based Republic, which handles 75 million tons of municipal solid waste and 8 million tons of recyclables nationwide annually.

“Smaller recycling companies aren’t able to stay in business and are shutting down.”

Peters said a large city like Phoenix can more easily absorb the market changes because their volume is so high, which lowers shipping costs.

“Smaller cities like Flagstaff are disadvantaged because they don’t produce as much material” and have to pay more for transportation, Peters said.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Griselda Zetino and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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