What happens to our recycling in Hampton Roads?
Sorters sift through recycling as it passes by on a conveyor belt, pulling out items that cannot be recycled or will damage the machinery at TFC Recycling in Chesapeake on October 7, 2019. (Sarah Holm/The Virginian Pilot)1 / 8
A few years ago when you tossed your cardboard boxes from Amazon into the recycling bin, there’s a good chance they eventually traveled thousands of miles and half a world away to China.
In Virginia, as elsewhere, some businesses that haul or process our waste have gone bankrupt, closed or moved. Some cities have had to cancel their curbside recycling programs — meaning those materials are now going to the dump.
The commonwealth is working to recover. Hampton Roads, too, has had to adapt.
Much of our region’s recycling — 400 tons a day of it — ends up at TFC Recycling’s material recovery facility in Chesapeake. The waste comes from Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks all the way to the Eastern Shore and James City County.
“Next thing you know we’ve got a national crisis, because you can’t afford to stay in business by charging these low prices,” Benedetto said. “We decided to hunker down and tighten our belts and do things other companies could not do or decided not to do. And they went bankrupt.”
In the wake of China’s decision, TFC has had to renegotiate with the region’s governments, charging more to process residents’ recycling.
It drew attention last year when it opted out of its Norfolk contract, citing China, only to work out a new agreement just recently after a survey showed citizens’ overwhelming support for the program. Chesapeake is now “seriously considering” ditching its program.
Yet China’s decision opens the door for economic development here. Updated paper mills are opening, and Virginia passed a bill last year that incentivizes larger recycling and beneficial use plants. The Department of Environmental Quality has been evaluating the state’s recycling strategies and just released a report on the topic.
The market shift from abroad has forced the industry to rethink its own practices. Where it goes from here is unclear. What is clear is that, like an aluminum can melted down and formed anew, the landscape in Virginia is morphing.
And your recycling may not be going where you think.
You’ve finished that last delicious slice of pepperoni. What to do with the box?
The bottom line is the boxes are usually covered in food waste, making them not recyclable. Some places accept the clean half, or even cardboard with slight grease stains versus caked in cheese. In Hampton Roads, however, it’s best to just throw it out. At TFC’s Chesapeake facility, Benedetto said, workers have to grab items so fast at the initial sorting station that if they see a pizza box, they don’t have time to assess the level of food contamination. It’ll just get tossed.
Years ago, recycling trucks would pick things up using “multiple streams,” meaning items would be separated by type from the very beginning.
Single stream, which is now nearly universal, combines everything. The benefit was it encouraged recycling by making it easier. The downside: when everything’s jumbled together, contamination is rampant.
Recycling programs began in earnest in the 1980s, in part following an infamous incident involving the Mobro barge. The ship had set sail from New York carrying thousands of tons of trash headed for North Carolina. Following public backlash, the state rejected the garbage and the ship traveled to Belize and back to New York, searching for a place to dump the waste.
“From that it’s like, ‘oh my gosh, we’ve got all this trash, where are we going to bring it, there aren’t enough landfills, we need to do more from a recycling perspective,’” Benedetto said. “And it was in the mid to late 1980s that throughout the country, including Virginia, they enacted recycling laws and mandates where a certain percentage of the waste stream had to be recycled.”
Since 1989, the state has set recycling targets for local governments. For more than two decades it’s been set at 25%, with an exemption for smaller localities that can have 15%. But even those numbers can be misleading, officials said. Though localities are required to submit their numbers to DEQ periodically, the department does not enforce the mandate beyond working to develop an action plan. Leslie Beckwith, director of the department’s office of financial responsibility and waste programs, said in the past few years, only one locality had failed to meet the mandate.
Virginia also takes in waste from outside the state — more than 5 million tons of it in 2018, according to a DEQ report — nearly a quarter of the total tons of waste disposed of in the commonwealth. Nearly 2.5 million tons came from Maryland, with about a million each also coming from New York and D.C.
“As you can imagine, this is bringing a lot of money in to companies that have the capacity, landfills here in Virginia,” Benedetto said. “There are a lot of lobbyists here that are protecting this free flowing of trash coming in. And anything that would keep that trash from going into Virginia’s landfills, they’re opposing with elected officials.”
Hampton Roads residents are not incentivized to reduce their trash, Benedetto added, because they don’t pay by weight.
The conundrum of the pizza box highlights another problem in the industry: inconsistent guidelines.
An official in western Virginia told The Pilot pizza boxes would be accepted. A northern Virginia official said just the clean half of the cardboard would be OK. And down in Hampton Roads, it shouldn’t be recycled at all.
“This is largely market-driven,” said Brandon Wright of the National Waste and Recycling Association. “Some communities it may be cost-prohibitive to recycle glass, so they don’t take it. Others maybe transportation costs are lower. Whenever there’s a market for something and it’s cost-effective, that will dictate what’s collected and not. It’s important to check locally.”
The Virginia Recycling Association is monitoring a bill moving through Congress that would harmonize what can and can’t go through recycling carts, said Monica Boehringer, the association’s vice president and recycling coordinator for the city of Manassas.
“That lack of consistency is confusing,” she said. Such a bill would be a “breakthrough.”
Here’s something that might surprise you: most glass that is recycled in Virginia ends up in a landfill — but still counts toward the recycling rate.
It’s crushed and used as alternative daily cover, or material needed to cover a landfill each day to protect from scavengers, control odors and the like. Only about 10% of glass food and beverage containers in the commonwealth actually get recycled.
It’s not that the material can’t be recycled — in fact it can be, endlessly. But there is no facility in the state properly equipped to clean and process the glass to the standards required to make it into new glass products.
“Glass is kind of notorious in the recycling industry” because it gets so contaminated in the single stream process, said Helen Lee, environmental program manager with the Alexandria Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. “The reason our glass has been hard to market is because it needs that next level of cleaning, that middle-level facility.”
It’s not affordable to send the glass to facilities out of state because the material is simply too heavy to transport.
“The practical implication is if you don’t have a beneficial use for it, it’ll get landfilled,” said Brett Vassey, president and CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association. “If there’s no place to put the glass, operators are taking glass cullet (crushed pieces) and using it for landfill cover.”
That’s in part what inspired the manufacturers association to push for a beneficial use law in the commonwealth, which passed and went into effect last year. It allows facilities dedicated to beneficial use, such as for glass, to be deemed manufacturers and take home economic incentives. The bill also directed DEQ to look at strategies for improving recycling in Virginia over the next decade.
One strategy picking up steam elsewhere is known as the “bottle bill.” It is essentially a deposit on recycling. For each bottle, retailers pay a deposit that is passed down to the customer when buying the product. Consumers can then return the bottles after use and get their money back.
“Virginia needs to get on board with that. There needs to be a better funding scheme where there’s an amount set aside for the recovery of those materials,” said Scott MacDonald, recycling program manager for the Prince William County Solid Waste Division. “Glass has longstanding market problems in Virginia.”
The Owens-Illinois facility in Toano purchases glass cullet from Iowa, which has a bottle bill, according to board minutes from the Virginia Peninsulas Public Service Authority.
Meanwhile in northern Virginia, a group of localities have joined together to try something new. They stopped accepting glass curbside but created a new drop-off initiative featuring large purple bins. The glass in the program is cleaner than what ends up in a local recycling center, and is sent to a new plant in Fairfax County where it can be turned into sand- and pebble-like material to be used in construction projects.
Here in Hampton Roads, Benedetto said, the main reason localities still want to divert glass from the trash is its weight. The more of it in the trash, the greater the fees to dispose of it.
At TFC’s Chesapeake facility on an afternoon last month, Benedetto walked up to a bale of recycled paper, featuring flattened products including Cheerios boxes and a Deschutes Brewery beer carrier. One of these bales weighs an average of 2,200 pounds. At the plant, they’re loaded into shipping containers and sent to the port to be shipped overseas.
Before, that meant mostly to China. Now most paper from Hampton Roads is exported to India and southeast Asia, Benedetto said. That change alone has introduced massive new transportation costs.
Because of its proximity to the port, TFC had been backhauling bales to China, filling empty containers that had unloaded here and needed the heavy weight to keep the ship stable on its return voyage.
“It was cheaper for us to send material from the ports here in Norfolk to China than it was to send it from here to Atlanta,” Benedetto said. The same isn’t true for India.
China still accepts near-pristine material — it dropped the level of contamination it will take to an extremely strict 0.5%. Cardboard coming straight from behind a big box store, for example, might qualify. But coming in after consumer use, through single stream, is nearly impossible. (Don’t toss shredded paper in the recycling, by the way, Benedetto said. It’s a contaminant.)
Paper now represents the economic opportunities that have emerged from the market shift. Mills that couldn’t have competed with China’s prices are opening domestically, including one north of Richmond. Cascades is spending about $300 million to upgrade the former Bear Island Paper Mill in Hanover County and start producing recycled containerboard in 2021.
This is what Benedetto calls the “urban tumbleweed,” the bane of recyclers everywhere.
“It blows out of our truck, it blows down the street, it comes into our facility, it jams up our equipment, it creates problem after problem,” he said. “If it gets through and winds up in the paper, it can create problems in third world countries. We do not want plastic bags.”
The bags are not recyclable curbside, part of a group of items known as “tanglers.” (Keep in mind, the same applies for putting all of your recycling in a plastic bag. The whole thing will be tossed.)
People can take them to most supermarkets, where they’re sent to be used often in construction, turned into decking. But it highlights how the focus should be on the first two steps in the green arrow process: reduce and reuse.
Here we come to the industry’s preeminent problem, made more urgent in the wake of China’s contamination crackdown: what’s known as “wishful recycling.”
Many people will optimistically toss just about anything in the bin.
“You put it in and hope for the best,” said Boehringer of Manassas. “That’s where it goes horribly wrong.”
It’s not just everything but the kitchen sink, she said — one time, she even saw an actual kitchen sink end up at the local recycling center.
While visiting the Chesapeake facility, a Pilot reporter saw products including a toaster, a light fixture, mulch, pottery, clothes, baby shoes, pillows, electrical cords and lots and lots of plastic. Christmas lights often come through around January.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” Benedetto said. “It would save us a lot of money and a lot of risk.”
About a fifth of everything that comes through TFC is tossed in the trash. It’s taken not to a landfill but to the incinerator plant in Portsmouth where it’s converted to steam energy for the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
Here’s your mantra: Paper, bottles and cans. That’s all you should be recycling, Benedetto said.
For a long time, experts said, the industry mostly let wishful recycling slide because we could get away with higher levels of contamination.
“These instances of wishful recycling were never really curbed at the beginning,” Boehringer said. “When (China) imposed those restrictions, it was like a bucket of cold water. We’ve got to reduce the amount of contamination … overnight, and that is a problem.”
The cleaner the material, she added, the higher the value for a company like TFC that has to sell it once it’s taken from your doorstep.
Legislation to allow localities to enact bans on single-use plastics like those pesky plastic bags has been continually proposed and rejected in Virginia.
Among those hoping for such a law? The city of Virginia Beach. In feedback on recycling sent to the state this year, the city asked for help in pushing such legislation, as well as extending tax credits for businesses that eliminate single-use plastic items.
To remove the cap, or not?
Take it off, Benedetto said. “A cap off the bottle will increase the probability that the bottle is empty.”
Machinery at the facility sorts plastic, and bottles with liquid cannot be properly crushed. “For fun, take a plastic water or soda bottle and put on the lid,” he said in an email. “Jump up and down on it. I bet you can’t crush it.”
Our plastic bottles are typically sold to companies in the Carolinas that fashion them into new plastic products including polyester and synthetic fibers for carpet, clothing and other products, he said. Most items that are nontoxic with a neck, such as laundry detergent or milk jugs, can be put in curbside recycling.
Other plastics can’t, but that’s not what people tend to think.
“There’s so much misconception out there,” Benedetto said. “And there’s a lot of greenwashing from the industry.”
Those little numbers 1-7 can be confusing, he added, leading people to think anything featuring one of them can be recycled. Around here, he only wants 1-2 — again, just bottles.
That clamshell you eat your salad out of? Throw it away. Same with disposable cups and utensils. Unless you find specific local places that can accommodate recycling those products.
The plastics industry is “always wanting to get it to you as cheaply as possible,” said MacDonald of Prince William County, and it’s fallen on waste haulers, processors and local governments to pick up the expenses on the other side. Increasingly, pressure needs to be put on the people producing the plastic to help pay for it, he said.
“If they had to pay for recovery, they might think twice about how they design their product.”
This is probably the best example of a “closed loop.” Even after all the changes to the recycling industry, an aluminum can still goes from the shelf at your local mini-mart to back on the market within 60 days.
Take a Tradition Brewing beer can that you toss into a bin in Newport News, for instance. After getting picked up in a truck, taken through the TFC facility and pressed into a bale, the can will likely be sold to a mill in Kentucky or Illinois, where it will be shredded into chips, melted down and made into an aluminum sheet.
“Drink beer out of cans,” Benedetto pleaded.
For municipalities in the commonwealth dealing with the fallout of the China shift, the biggest hardship has of course been increased costs, particularly for disposal.
When a hauler takes the recycling to drop off, they have to pay a tipping fee similar to a landfill, said MacDonald in Prince William County. In Northern Virginia, they’ve seen those fees rise by up to three times. He’s worried “certain parts of the industry could collapse.”
Cities around the country have started sending recycling to the trash, with or without public notice. In Virginia, it’s mostly smaller and more rural localities that have had to do so.
“We’re all reevaluating our recycling programs,” said Teresa Sweeney, education coordinator for the Montgomery Solid Waste Authority and also president of the Virginia Recycling Association. China “forced everybody to rethink how we’re doing things. We are doing this because we need to survive.”
Among those who have ended or restricted their recycling programs since the market shift: Harrisonburg, Staunton, Bristol, Winchester, Waynesboro, Washington County, Lexington, Dayton, Broadway, Virginia Tech.
A particularly difficult blow came when Tri City Waste Paper Co. along the Tennessee border closed earlier this year, Sweeney said. A lot of nearby localities had used the facility and couldn’t afford to start shipping materials farther.
It’s a constant cost-benefit analysis, Boehringer said, between transportation cost and value of the program. “So they made the decision to discontinue.”
In urban areas such as Hampton Roads, it’s played out a little differently.
TFC announced it was pulling out of Norfolk last year, and the city had to scramble to get out a request for proposals, said Richard Broad, the city’s public works director. The company explained to city officials that it used to make enough money selling materials to cover the collection cost, but because of the newer slump in revenue had to add on a per-ton processing fee.
The city looked at what it would cost to mix recycling with trash and take it all to the Portsmouth plant instead, but a survey of residents — which got one of the highest responses ever for a citizen survey — showed overwhelming support for paying slightly more to keep the program, Broad said. The city council decided to keep recycling, and recently reached a new deal with TFC.
Broad said the council had also been afraid that “if we stepped out of the marketplace for a while, by the time they restarted” it would be difficult to retrain residents to recycle. The city did not want to send recycling to the trash without citizens’ knowledge, he said, as Portsmouth has done in the past.
Now Chesapeake is confronting a similar situation. Suffolk is currently evaluating proposals for its curbside program. Costs went up for the Historic Triangle when they secured a new contract over the summer. Others are sure to follow.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Lee of Alexandria.
Katherine Hafner, 757-222-5208, email@example.com
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