County recycling cutback starts Jan. 21

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Convenience sites won’t take glass or plastics

By Gregory A. Summers

For years, Lancaster County residents have been encouraged to separate recyclable materials – glass, plastics, metals, cardboard and newsprint – from their household garbage.
But starting Jan. 21, some of that is going to change.
Thanks to what’s being dubbed the “Great Recycling Crisis,” local residents no longer will be asked to separate glass and plastics from their trash. There will no longer be bins for plastics and glass at the county’s 12 convenience sites.
The matter was discussed in detail earlier this month at County Council’s Infrastructure and Regulation Committee meeting. The decision is an administrative one, which means it was made by county staff, not elected officials.
The city of Lancaster has also suspended its recycling program.
“It’s just unfortunate that in this world where you talk about protecting the environment, we can’t recycle plastic, but part of that is the packaging industry and consumer demand,” said County Councilman Terry Graham.
In the past, the goal was keeping as much out of landfills as possible, but that’s no longer an option.   
County Public Works Director Jeff Catoe said recycling centers that once took in those materials for free from local governments are now charging $75 to $90 a ton to take them.
“It’s now cheaper to throw stuff away than it is to recycle,” Catoe said.
And the added cost “to pay for the privilege” can’t be justified, said County Administrator Steve Willis, noting that the cost to recycle is now more than three times higher than burying the items in a landfill.
“It worked fine until recently,” Willis said.  
Change in China
For 25 years, China was America’s go-to for processing recyclables into new materials. But that has all changed now that the nation rejects all but the cleanest loads.
In 2016, China imported 16.2 million tons of U.S. recyclables, the Solid Waste Association of North America reported. Since January, it has accepted very little.
“They just quit buying them and the market has evaporated…. Recycling went to hell in a hand basket, basically,” Willis said. 
Last January, China passed its National Sword policy, which bans imported plastic waste for the protection of the environment and peoples health.
The uncompromising set of new rules bans 24 types of solid waste such as certain plastics and unsorted, contaminated cardboard. According to national news reports, many of the exported materials could not be recycled and were ending up in Chinese landfills or worse, taking a health toll on its population.
“Most folks think ‘my pizza box is cardboard.’ Well, it is, but it’s contaminated cardboard. If you put in a few pizza boxes, you can ruin a whole load of cardboard and then, you’re just throwing it away,” said Willis.
Beginning Jan. 21, cardboard, metals, aluminum cans, tires, oils and newsprint will still be accepted at the 12 convenience sites.
Yard debris, which is considered as a separate category, will be taken as usual.  
“Until we can get a better handle on it, it’s just way too costly to do it. It’s going south fast on us,” Catoe said.
If the market changes, the county convenience sites will start taking in plastics and glass as recyclable products again.
“We can make a quick fix back,” Catoe said.  
Follow reporter Greg Summers on Twitter @GregSummers TLN or call (803) 283-1156.