Matt Driscoll

We buy too much stuff. Changing Tacoma’s recycling program, increasing fees won’t fix that

Tacoma Recycling Center

Changes in China's acceptable recycled material is putting a crimp on recycling in America, including the Tacoma Recycling Center in Tacoma, Washington.
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Changes in China's acceptable recycled material is putting a crimp on recycling in America, including the Tacoma Recycling Center in Tacoma, Washington.

Tacoma’s recycling program is about to change. That much is certain.

After months of community outreach, the City Council soon will decide what to do. The potential changes range from eliminating curbside recycling entirely to a Cadillac option that maintains and strengthens it, including additional educational efforts.

There are four options in all, each carrying an increased cost to residential customers — from just over $1 a month to $4.

That’s because, like many cities, Tacoma’s recyclables are sold overseas, mainly in Asia. New, stricter policies on the quality of these recyclables, particularly in China — like hard limits on the number of peanut butter-covered jars or soiled cardboard food containers — have made the endeavor significantly more expensive.

There are takeaways in all this, but they don’t end with the need to make sure people are recycling the right things and a reminder of the country’s over-reliance on foreign recycling markets.

Put simply, we’ve got a serious consumption problem, and the state of recycling in Tacoma — and across the country — should serve as a wake-up call.

Recycling programs, for all their value, are more like a Band Aid than a cure — and they’re quickly becoming less and less feasible.

They might soon be obsolete.

For decades, these programs have had the perhaps unintended consequence of helping make Americans feel complacent or at least a lot better about all the stuff we buy and chuck into our big, blue bins.

“We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now,” Fiona Ma, the treasurer of California, recently told The New York Times in a large piece about cities scrapping recycling programs because of increased costs.

In some cities chronicled in the New York Times piece, recyclable material is being burned for energy or sent straight to the landfill.

Luckily, according to Preston Peck, a project specialist with Tacoma’s office of Environmental Services, things aren’t as dire in the City of Destiny.

All of our recyclables are still being recycled, Peck says, though it’s getting more and more challenging and expensive.

In 2011, Peck says, the city actually had a monthly net revenue from recycling of about $100 per ton. The program wasn’t a money-maker, but it was breaking even.

Now, it’s costing the city about $100 a ton to do the same thing, which is why changes to the program — and increased cost to consumers — are right around the corner, one way or another.

In total, Tacoma generates more than 16,000 tons of recycling every year.

“There is a strong culture of recycling and doing the environmentally right thing here, and that’s across all zip codes,” Peck said of the responses the city has received about the potential changes, which aim to get the city back to break-even status.

“That being said, people are sensitive to cost. This is an expensive place to live, and wages haven’t necessarily risen … People want to do the right thing, and the environmentally friendly thing, but I think it’s important that we are considerate to their sensitivity to cost increase,” he continued.

Rightly so. But this ever-changing cycle of cost-versus-benefit brings us back to the obvious — we’re producing too much throw-away material, whether it’s old-school garbage or supposedly greener recyclables.

Remember this when you're recycling: Keep it clean and dry! Clean, flatten and dry paper recycling products. Empty and rinse of food residue plastic bottles and tubs, as well as aluminum cans. When in doubt, throw it out.

For starters, shipping recyclable materials across the Pacific Ocean is inherently stupid. Even when you consider that some of this material makes its way to Asia in shipping containers that might otherwise be empty, it’s a silly proposition if the motivation is sustainability.

Developing a legitimate local, domestic option for recycling, while it won’t come overnight, has to be part of the conversation.

More importantly, the blind illusion that our insatiable consumption habit — including all the needless plastic packaging that encases so many of the products we buy — can be solved by recycling only masks the true extent of the problem.

At best, the plastic we recycle largely returns to us in the form of lesser plastic that eventually finds its way to the landfill anyway.

It helps, but it’s not a solution.

All of this is a long way of saying that, in addition to updating the city’s recycling program and doing a much better job educating people about how to recycle better, the city and its residents need to think long and hard about the future.

On a personal level, people need to be more aware of how much waste they’re producing and take steps to curb it. That means seemingly small steps like choosing products with less packaging and ditching the plastic sandwich bags at lunch in favor of reusable containers.

More importantly, on a policy level, city leaders need to continue to find ways to pressure — or inspire — companies to do a better job if they want to do business here.

“I think the future could be kind of whatever we want it to be,” Peck says, acknowledging that getting to the root of Tacoma’s consumption habit is a priority the city is already keenly aware of.

“I think this is an opportunity to step back and think about the whole system and what we’re trying to accomplish with that system,” Peck says.

That’s good to hear, because, in the end, the goal can’t just be making our recycling program sustainable.

It has to be about making Tacoma sustainable.

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