Faced with mounting losses in its 25-year-old recycling program, Mesa plans to restrict the items it collects and close three bulk recycling centers, but curbside recycling will continue.
The drop-off centers at Dobson Ranch Park, Country Club and Juanita as well as the East Mesa Service Center, at Power Road and Adobe Street, closed October 3.
Mayor John Giles rejected Councilman Kevin Thompson’s suggestion to follow the City of Surprise’s lead and suspend recycling following a report revealing the city is spending more on recycling than it does sending trash to the landfill.
New contracts with recycling providers are driving up the costs, along with lower prices paid for certain commodities, such as cardboard and paper, said Scott Bouchie, the city’s director of solid waste and sustainability.
He said the new contracts include a processing fee per ton and payment to the city of a percentage of a commodity’s value. These contracts replaced flat fees per ton that were more favorable to cities.
The cost of recycling is now $45 a ton, based upon two new contracts that were approved by the Mesa City Council on September 23, as opposed to the $27 a ton fee the city pays for shipping garbage to landfills, he said.
The next steps in a recycling “rebranding,’’ expected to be announced later this month, include closing three recycling drop off areas scattered around the city and restricting the types still be accepted for recycling.
Bouchie said the easiest way to look at it is that Mesa will accept all beverage containers—milk and water jugs, highly valuable aluminum beer and soda cans, far lesser value glass bottles, plastic juice bottles—along with paper and clean metal food cans.
The goal is to reduce contamination, he said, and that’s why many other common, everyday items will no longer be accepted, such as plastic laundry detergent bottles and peanut butter jars.
“I like the way Surprise rolled there’s out,’’ Thompson said, describing how the west Phoenix suburb suspended recycling while better financial solutions can be found to cut losses.
Surprise also encouraged residents to continue putting recyclable items in blue bins, with the idea of preserving a good habit, even though the plastic bottles, aluminum cans and other items will be sent to the landfill while the program remains suspended.
“We want to be good stewards of the land and the environment, but there is a cost,’’ Thompson said, adding that Mesa risks causing confusion by restricting which items it will accept in blue recycling barrels.
“I think there needs to be a fee or we need to suspend recycling,’’ Thompson said.
But Councilmembers. Jennifer Duff, Giles and Jerry Whittaker objected for a variety of reasons and Councilman David Luna suggested better education campaigns.
“We, as a society, need to participate in recycling. Putting more into the landfill is not going to create a market,’’ Duff said. “It’s not going to accelerate what we need to do.’’
She said that even with recycling, there is too much plastic ending up in rivers and oceans, and that Mesa needs to play its part in protecting the environment.
Consumers also need to play a role in not buying products that they will use once and throw away, such as bottles of water, Duff said. Consumers can avoid generating plastic bottles by using a refillable water bottles, she said
“We need to push for people to make some more conscious choices to avoid these materials,’’ Duff said.
Another everyday example often cited by recycling advocates is to turn down plastic bags at supermarkets and other stores and to use re-usable bags instead when possible.
The plastic bags are considered the number one nemesis to recycling because they gum up machinery at recycling plants. Officials recommend recycling the bags by bringing them back to Fry’s, Target, or wherever a consumer got them.
Giles said he is concerned by the rising costs of recycling, but he is not ready to emulate Surprise by suspending the program. He said he supports the new restrictions to see if they will cut the city’s losses and re-evaluating the costs in about six months.
In six months, the council will need to decide if it wants to increase garbage removal rates by 50 cents per month, per barrel, to compensate for the higher recycling fees, Giles said.
“I am not a fan of the Surprise model. It seems disingenuous,’’ Giles said. “I think we need a new era of recycling. I think eliminating this program is not viable. I think our citizens will not stand for that,’’ because of concerns for the environment.
Whittaker, who focuses many of his efforts on analyzing the city’s finances, said he does not object to the city paying $1.5 million in increased costs a year for recycling.
He said it is important not to lose prospective when evaluating the higher recycling costs, noting that the three most profitable city services are water, solid waste and wastewater.
Whittaker said Solid Waste, which includes recycling, returns about a 38% profit, despite the higher recycling cost.
“I don’t think we should set the precedent that we should get rid of the program entirely,’’ Whittaker said. “Solid waste is an extremely lucrative business.’’
While water bottles will remain recyclable in Mesa, despite the cutbacks, there are several other items will not be accepted when the program is “rebranded’’ in coming weeks.
Bouchie prefers to focus more on educating the public on the items that still will be accepted, but some additional examples of those that no longer will be accepted include large plastic bottles used for olive oil and other cooking oils, peanut butter bottles that tend to be contaminated by food waste, yogurt containers and margarine and butter tubs.
Another significant change officials are contemplating is to take blue barrels away immediately from customers who throw a large amount of contaminated waste inside the blue barrels, rather than the present three strikes and you’re out approach.
Bouchie said 180 blue barrels have been seized from flagrant offenders and only six have asked for them back.
Mesa generates 220,000 to 230,000 tons of solid waste a year that is sent to landfills and 32,000 tons sent to recycling plants, where about 30% of recyclable materials are either contaminated or lost through the process, Bouchie said.
With the re-branding, another 10,000 to 15,000 tons of recycling may be lost by accepting less materials or optimizing the program’s operation in some ways, he said.
But the tradeoff is that Bouchie anticipates a significant reduction in costs. He said that overall, the city’s contamination rate is fairly low, with tests ranging from 9.4% to 12.8%.
The contamination rate is far higher, however, than the Chinese government’s standard of 0.5%, a standard local contractors say they cannot hit, removing China as a customer for recycling waste, he said.
The three recycling centers, where anyone could drop off trash, had a higher rate of contamination than curbside pickup and tended to attract people who are not Mesa customers, Bouchie said.