If Virginia’s recycling rate was measured by a 24-pack of bottled water, 11 of the empty plastic bottles would get recycled and 13 would wind up as trash.
That’s one way to look at a report from the Department of Environmental Quality, which found that Virginia had a recycling rate of 46% in 2018 — the highest percentage since the state began keeping track in 1989.
A closer look, however, shows that recycling is in more trouble than the report suggests.
Released last month, the report is based on data submitted by 17 solid waste planning units that serve areas with a combined population of 100,000 or more. Another 54 units, which include many of the smaller localities in Southwest Virginia, were not required to provide data.
Historically, the more densely populated regions have higher recycling rates.
And the numbers the report relies on — the tons of paper, cardboard, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, glass bottles, yard waste and other reusable items that didn’t wind up in a landfill or on the side of a road — were compiled before the full impact of a major change could be measured.
China, which for years has taken recyclable materials from the United States, began to cut off its imports in early 2018, causing a glut in the market that has made it hard for those in the business to find buyers for their plastic and other recyclables.
“I am a healthy skeptic,” Monica Boehringer, vice president of the Virginia Recycling Association, said of the DEQ report.
“I believe, very sincerely, that recycling in Virginia needs to be looked at a lot more closely,” said Boehringer, the refuse and recycling coordinator for the city of Manassas. “Because we are on the verge of losing recycling if we don’t sort it out quickly.”
A second report from DEQ was completed last month in response to a state law. Set to go before the General Assembly at its upcoming session, the report takes a much deeper dive into the disappearance of the Chinese market and how that has impacted recycling in Virginia.
“Curbside recycling programs are being cut, contracts with waste management providers are being renegotiated, and some recycling programs are being shuttered entirely,” the report stated.
Those trends are not fully reflected in the 46% rate for 2018, which marked a 4% increase from the year before. The annual recycling report shows a “historic high recycling rate for reporting localities in the commonwealth,” DEQ said in a Nov. 15 news release.
Joe Benedetto, president of Recycling and Disposal Solutions, the company that handles recyclable material collected in Roanoke and surrounding localities, sees a different picture.
“In general, recycling in the country is down between 30 and 40% over the past two years,” Benedetto said.
“I’ve been in the business for more than 30 years, and I’ve never seen it this bad.”
Robots in recycling
A conveyor belt snakes through the Recycling and Disposal Solutions building in an industrial section of Southwest Roanoke. It carries a jumbled mixture of newspaper, cardboard, plastic bottles, glass containers, aluminum and tin cans and other items that have outlived their usefulness in area homes and businesses.
Rather than toss the stuff in the trash, people placed it in bins for curbside pickup or took it to recycling drop-off spots.
Trucks then hauled it to the RDS warehouse — called an MRF, or materials recovery facility, by recycling insiders — where it will be sorted, baled and shipped off to buyers elsewhere in Virginia and beyond.
As the material enters the dank building, two workers standing next to the conveyor belt use poles with nails at the end to snare plastic bags, five-gallon buckets, sofa cushions, unwanted toys, a barbecue grill and other items that can’t be recycled.
It is a dirty and smelly job. “The work we do is not the work that most employees want to do,” Benedetto said.
To address a high turnover rate — and to make his operation more financially sound in troubled times — Benedetto recently purchased four robots to help with sorting. The machines do the work of humans, only faster and without ever getting tired or sick, or yearning for a new job.
“They show up to work every morning when we turn the power on,” Benedetto said of the first robots to be used in Virginia’s recycling business.
A camera scans the incoming stream and sends a computer message to the robotic arms, telling them what needs to be picked out as either trash or recyclables. The devices, which use a suction cup to remove the designated material, make between 80 to 90 “picks” each minute.
The robots were installed about three months ago. While some human labor is still required at RDS, Benedetto said he’s reduced his workforce at the Roanoke facility by about five positions through attrition.
He expects to see a return on his investment within five years, and he hopes to expand a business that currently serves Roanoke, Roanoke County and about a dozen other jurisdictions in the Roanoke and New River valleys.
While buyers in China no longer exist, and prices have been driven lower by an oversupply, Benedetto has been able to survive the downturn in the business, partly by taking the work of other recyclers that did not.
Stockpiled bales of paper, plastic and metal, which last year were stacked nearly to the roof of his building waiting for buyers, have since moved on.
The facility on Korte Street Southwest runs 10 hours a day, four days a week. It handles 70 to 80 tons per day, and at the end of the line, just 15% of what it takes in is deemed “contamination” and hauled to the landfill.
Changes in the market
Roanoke is one of the smaller jurisdictions that was not required to report data used by DEQ to calculate last year’s statewide recycling rate of 46%.
Internal numbers show the city had a rate of 41% in 2016, according to David Twigg, a maintenance supervisor who oversees the city’s solid waste disposal. The rate was down to 29% in 2017. Figures for 2018 were not available.
Twigg attributed the decline from 2016 to 2017 largely to challenges in getting numbers from businesses, which are not required to report to the city.
All jurisdictions must submit numbers once every four years for the DEQ annual report. When that happens again next year, the impact of the Chinese market restrictions is expected to be more evident. Related changes, such as a restriction on the type of plastics than can be recycled, could also alter the numbers.
Last year, city residents were told that only plastics numbered 1 and 2 — which are used for bottles of drinking water and larger containers such as the ones that hold milk and laundry detergent — could be dropped off in the blue recycling bins. Plastics numbers 3 through 7 are no longer accepted.
The higher numbered plastics are more difficult to recycle, one reason China cut off its imports from the United States.
In 2016, China received about 4,000 shipping containers a day — left empty after it imported goods to the U.S. — that were returned full of recyclables, which it used in the manufacture of new consumer products, according to a report from the National League of Cities.
That market had all but dried up by the end of 2018, after China implemented polices meant to reduce contamination levels in the recyclables it accepted.
As a result, the 64% of material in the U.S. that offered a return on investment in 2017 had plummeted to just 35% one year later, DEQ said in its more detailed report on recycling.
“Virginia businesses and municipalities continue to struggle to adapt to a changing market,” the report stated.
For example, a Northeast Tennessee recycler that served communities in far Southwest Virginia went out of business last year, leaving towns and counties with few options other than the landfill for their paper, glass and plastics.
The town of Broadway in Rockingham County suspended its recycling program, Harrisonburg was forced to throw out its material temporarily following the closure of a facility, and in Staunton the cost to service drop-off containers increased from $3,000 to $52,000, according to the DEQ report.
Roanoke, which began single-stream recycling in 2015, is committed to the program, which allows residents to put their plastics, paper, cans and glass all in one curbside bin that is emptied into a city trash truck.
“City council is supportive of the desire of citizens to push forward with this, and hopefully we can ride the wave out and there will be changes in the global market,” Twigg said.
State law sets recycling targets for all local governments in Virginia.
Those that have populations of more than 100,000, or that belong to a planning units that meet that level, are required to have a recycling rate of at least 25%. Areas with a population density of less than 100 people per square mile, or with an unemployment rate at least 50% higher than the state average, must maintain a 15% recycling rate.
In 2016, the last time all localities made reports to DEQ, two of the smaller ones — Tazewell and Highland counties — failed to meet their goals.
Those localities were required to submit plans outlining how they will improve their efforts, DEQ spokeswoman Ann Regn said. Although Highland County was not required to report this year, it voluntarily told state officials that its rate was 15% in 2018.
Tazewell County did not submit numbers but will be required to do so next year along with all the other local governments and planning units.
“DEQ works with businesses, localities and environmental groups to mitigate ongoing changes to the waste stream that could impact recycling rates, including China’s recycling market revisions,” said Leslie Beckwith, the agency’s director of financial responsibility and waste programs.
In its report to the General Assembly, DEQ included a list of recommendations. Among them: creating a task force to study the issue further, adding more state funding and tax credits for recycling centers, increasing grant funding to localities, and improving education and outreach efforts to encourage more public participation.
Benedetto, for one, is confident that recycling will make a comeback.
“But,” he said, “I can’t tell you when that will happen.”