Arizona recycling programs in trouble from residential contamination

Nov 3, 2019, 4:55 AM | Updated: 1:54 pm

“Before we essentially had an open door where China was accepting everything,” said Shane Wilhi...

“Before we essentially had an open door where China was accepting everything,” said Shane Wilhite-Valdez of Waste Management. “Now they’re very, very limited on the products that they’re taking.” (Photo by Dylan Simard/Cronkite News)

(Photo by Dylan Simard/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Cheesy pizza boxes, plastic grocery bags and grass clippings are a big reason more cities in Arizona are cutting back or even eliminating long standing recycling programs. But contamination isn’t the only factor at play.

China, which for decades has bought the bulk of U.S. recycling, including most plastics and paper products, threw the industry into disarray early last year when it severely cut back on imports of recycled materials because too much of it was contaminated with food and other non-recyclable materials.

“The problem is that people are sending too much waste in their (China’s) direction,” Charles Rolsky, a postdoctoral environmental student at Arizona State University, said. “Out of all plastics created, truly only about 9% has been recycled, and most of it ends up in the landfills.”

China’s move has forced cities to rethink what they can afford to recycle. Mesa is the latest to cut back on what it recycles because of the rising costs, and Surprise, in the northwest Valley, suspended its program in August because of contamination.

“It has to do with the way that our commodities are being processed now,” Shane Wilhite-Valdez, maintenance manager at Waste Management’s Northwest Regional Material Recovery Facility, told Cronkite News. “So before we essentially had an open door where China was accepting everything; now they’re very, very limited on the products that they’re taking.”

Contamination also is an issue in Arizona

Recycling plants, also known as material recovery facilities, contain conveyor belts that move materials up and down multiple floors, enormous magnets pull metals from waste, and sanitation workers in gloves manually sort through recyclables and non-recyclables. All of this manual sorting comes at a cost. When residents contaminate their recycling, it costs their city money.

This shift comes at a time when Americans – after decades of campaigns explaining the benefits – finally have embraced recycling, according to the latest data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet, according to that same EPA data, Americans generated 262.4 million tons of waste in 2015, up 60% from 1985.

Surprise is the latest Arizona city to suspend its recycling program due to the rising costs. Globe, Sierra Vista, Casa Grande have also suspended their programs within the last year.

Mike Gent, public works director for Surprise, said residents aren’t making it easy for the city to recycle.

“Reducing contamination or eliminating contamination would be a big lift for every community, and every community has been working on it for years,” Gent said. “Unfortunately, the combination of education and enforcement hasn’t been enough to really tackle that challenge.”

More cities in Arizona are making huge cuts to their recycling programs, which means less-frequent curbside pickups and tighter restrictions on accepted materials. Mesa announced on social media in October that more restrictions are coming. Tucson has also made huge cuts to its program, and Kingman consolidated its seven recycling dropoffs into one location in July.

Putting a lid on recycling

Cities pay for curbside recycling through contracts with Waste Management, Right Away Disposal and similar companies. Contracts signed a few years ago were drawn up during a thriving market for recyclable materials, when China had no restrictions on what it would take.

China now buys only a small fraction of what it bought in 2016, and it plans to end all imports, Wilhite-Valdez said.

“As of 2020, recycling is going to be completely cut off where they (China) will no longer be taking recyclables from the United States,” he said.

Rolsky said deliveries of plastic mixed with trash create problems.

“Why would they (the Chinese) want to keep buying it if then it takes them extra manpower to separate all that trash out and then move on with the recycling process?” Rolsky said.

study published in Science Advances suggests China’s policy will displace an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste by 2030, which is nearly equivalent to all of the plastic waste that has been imported globally since 1988.

An uncertain future

The recycling market continues to drop, and questions about the future of recycling continue to rise. Until the market becomes more affordable for cities, you can expect the suspension of programs to continue, and perhaps more cities will do the same thing.

Gent knows Arizonans are concerned.

“On social media and in person, residents are asking, ‘What can we do to get recycling back? What can we do to make it work?’ If we could eliminate contamination, we might even go back to generating revenue again,” Gent said.

Tempe Vice Mayor Lauren Kuby agreed. “We are trying to educate our residents, too. If we can divert waste away from recycling and into the landfill, that will save money.”

Smaller cities don’t have the resources to continue to participate with rising costs. “We used to make $600,000 off of our recycling,” Kuby said, “Now, we lose about $500,000, so it is incredible that it has turned into a million dollar swing.”

Surprise hopes to resume curbside recycling once the market becomes affordable again. Until then, residents can drop off their materials at the Northwest Regional Material Recovery Facility in Surprise on Saturday mornings.

If you live in a city that has also suspended curbside pickup, contact the public works director for information on where you can take your recyclables.

The best thing residents can do is to stop contamination. Check your city’s website for information on what can and cannot be recycled. Put your materials in loosely in your container. If your city has suspended curbside pickup, find a drop site near you.

For more stories from Cronkite News, visit

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

Arizona News

Bus through residence...

2 suspects on the run after bus crashes into home in Mesa; several injured

Several people were injured and two people were on the run after a bus crashed into a home in Mesa on Monday, authorities said.

30 seconds ago

Bales of hay are stored under shelters at Al Dahra Farms, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, in the McMullen V...

Associated Press

Tensions over water are bubbling up at thirsty rural Arizona alfalfa farms

Worries about future water supplies from the McMullen Valley's ancient aquifers are bubbling up in rural western Arizona.

2 hours ago

Mugshot of Ivanka Koleva, who was arrested Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, for alleged involvement in her hu...

Woman arrested for allegedly killing husband in Gilbert

A woman was arrested Monday in connection to her alleged involvement in her husband's death last week in Gilbert.

3 hours ago

Example of ADU or "casita"...

Damon Allred

Tempe seeking public input on accessible dwelling unit expansion

The city of Tempe will continue to mull over their options regarding the expanded use of accessory dwelling units, seeking more public input.

4 hours ago

aerial view of downtown Chandler...

Damon Allred

Maricopa County invests $10 million in Chandler housing

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approved a $10 million investment into low-income housing in Chandler, the board announced Monday.

4 hours ago

Glendale Community College's music school received a national accreditation....

Damon Allred

Glendale Community College earns music school accreditation

The National Association of Schools of Music notified Glendale Community College of their music school accreditation.

4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(KTAR News Graphic)...

KTAR launches online holiday auction benefitting Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley

KTAR is teaming up with The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley for a holiday auction benefitting thousands of Valley kids.

Follow @KTAR923...

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.


Midwestern University

Midwestern University: innovating Arizona health care education

Midwestern University’s Glendale Campus near Loop 101 and 59th Avenue is an established leader in health care education and one of Arizona’s largest and most valuable health care resources.

Arizona recycling programs in trouble from residential contamination