Certain plastics are the latest casualty as Harrisonburg feels more effects of the shifting global recycling landscape

Recycling 2018 graphic

Source: City of Harrisonburg Department of Public Works

By Ryan Alessi

Once again, a ripple effect of the changing global marketplace for recycled materials has hit Harrisonburg — this time putting a stop to collection of No. 3 through No. 7 plastics like yogurt cups and certain microwave-safe containers.

The city officially announced the change Monday, although the Public Works Department’s recycling collection staff had warned residents last week with signs saying the change was coming.


A sign last week warned Harrisonburg residents that Nos. 3-7 plastics suddenly wouldn’t be recycled. (Photo courtesy of Paul Frankel)

It’s the latest ramification in a shifting environment that forced Harrisonburg to switch last year from curbside collection of single-stream trash and recycling to centralized collection of self-sorted recyclables at either the Recycling Convenience Center on Beery Road or a mobile recycling unit set up at the Farmer’s Market and other venues.

The change will also send tons more trash to the landfill. Between March and Dec. 31, 2018, the city’s voluntary recycling program collected more than 29 tons of No. 3 through No. 7 plastics. Those plastics, mostly single-use containers and packaging, are often of poorer quality than No. 1 plastics, which are mostly drink bottles, and No. 2 plastics, which include milk jugs and containers for bleach, detergent and shampoo.

Not being able to recycle the No. 3 through No. 7 plastics will further erode the percentage of material Harrisonburg residents and businesses can — and do — recycle. Last year, they volutnarily recycled a total of 385 tons of materials in the last 10 months of 2018, which worked out to be about 4.1 percent of the total amount of solid waste disposed, according to the Public Works’ 2018 solid waste report. In comparison, the single stream recycling program that was sorted at the now-closed Van der Lindes recycling plant in Charlottesville produced a 23 percent recycling rate in 2017, according to the report.

Harsit Patel, support services manager for the city’s Public Works Department, said Sonoco Recycling — one of the biggest brokers of recycled materials in the region — said it would no longer take the No.3-7 plastics, particularly in light of the fact that China is refusing to accept mixed recycling and India is following suit. In the United States, it remains costly to sort the various plastics, especially given that incoming tonnage far exceeds demand.

“They can’t find a market for it,” Patel said. “We contacted companies in Richmond and Hampton Roads all the way up to Maryland.”

Patel said the he briefly thought he found a broker to take them last week, but it didn’t work out.

“That’s how quickly things move,” he said.

After China’s decision last year to drastically restrict incoming recyclables, because of environmental concerns, a rapidly-shifting landscape has affected municipalities across the country. Staunton, Augusta County and Waynesboro sharply curtailed their recycling programs two weeks ago after Sonoco said it no longer had a market to sell glass and mixed plastics, as the Staunton News-Leader reported.

Harrisonburg is better-positioned to continue collecting some materials, in part because the city works with multiple brokers. For instance, according to city records:

Glass and yard waste gets crushed or chipped for use as landfill cover, providing traction for garbage trucks’ tires and keeping newly-dumped trash covered.

“Even then the glass is considered re-used material,” Patel said. “It’s saving money because it doesn’t cost the taxpayers money and the county does need that material.”

Ideally, he said, old glass would actually be recycled. Patel said residents should still wash glass containers before recycling them just in case a new market for recycled glass emerges.

Shrinking market

Because of the sheer volume of stuff people worldwide consume and throw away, the market for recyclable material is flooded.

Daniel Fisher, part owner of Dave’s Recycling in Harrisonburg, said his business for cardboards and plastic drink bottles remains steady, with buyers spread across the South.

“We’re the middle man,” he said. “We take it from all the smaller customers, prepare it the way the mills want it, and ship it out, usually on the truckload.”

Dave’s Recycling’s biggest customers are area retailers and industrial facilities that collect bales of broken-down boxes each week.

The share that the city collects from residents is just a tiny portion. For instance, in February, Dave’s collected 2.3 million pounds of cardboard, of which just 25,000 pounds — about 1 percent — came from the city’s collection, Fisher said.

The cardboard goes to mills in Riverville and Big Island, Virginia, while No. 1 and No. 2 plastics are trucked to North Carolina or Alabama, where they’re washed and ground, he said. Some of the No. 1 plastics get converted into polyester fiber for carpets or filler for sleeping bags.

Recycling diptychDave’s Recycling started in 1977 by buying up old newspaper and was one of the early leaders in the industry. It was the first in the Valley to accept plastics, said Fisher, who started working at the company, which his father founded, when he was in school.

The industry and the markets have been changing since Dave’s Recycling was founded. It stopped handling metals and newspaper because more used paper went straight to mills, and the company didn’t collect enough glass to make it worthwhile. And now, Fisher said, because of policy changes in China, the plastic market is precarious.

“What happened was because of China’s cheap labor – people were sending too much trash there. That was a way to get rid of the poor-grade stuff,” he said. “They were being taken advantage of, quite frankly. They almost went beyond what they should have.”

Not a money-maker

The city occasionally gets small checks of $50 or $75 for materials — usually cardboard and metal, Patel said.

Recycling costs the city far more in total employee hours to staff the collection sites, as well as transporting the materials to Dave’s Recycling, Valley Paper and Recycling Management.

Returning to curbside pick-up is even costlier and is just not an option, despite the fact that it’s one of the most frequently raised issues, said City Manager Eric Campbell in a recent interview with The Citizen.

Patel said the city is making no new budget requests for the recycling program in this next year and will maintain the current set-up of the Convenience Center and the mobile unit.

The voluntary recycling program has been far more popular than Patel expected last March when the single-stream curbside pick-up ended.

Now, the goal is to maintain collection of the existing materials for which there remains a market, like the cardboard, metals and No. 1 plastic. But the recycling marketplace these days is fickle — as  indicated by Sonoco’s recent decision to stop accepting certain plastics.

“We just have to adjust. Luckily for us it’s just No. 3 through 7,” Patel said. “For now.”

And, he said, rather than spending energy lamenting the lack of recycling markets, communities like Harrisonburg have an opportunity to devote more effort toward consuming less of those products.

“We should start looking at avoiding single use plastic items,” he said, “and go to renewable items that we can use over and over.”

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