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story.lead_photo.caption Steven Manning, a quality-control technician, sorts contaminants from cardboard being bundled at the Waste Management recycling facility Wednesday in Little Rock. - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

Arkansas' largest city is preparing to phase out curbside glass recycling, joining most of the state's cities of 40,000 or more people in not offering the service.

Per a tentative contract revision with Waste Management, Little Rock, North Little Rock and Sherwood will no longer accept glass in curbside recycling carts starting April 1 through March 31, 2021, and the cities will roll out an education plan to encourage people to recycle only the right materials.

Little Rock and the Regional Recycling and Waste Reduction District have discussed the possibility of expanded glass recycling drop-offs and perhaps eventual glass curbside recycling through a separate pickup, district Executive Director Craig Douglass said.

The adjustment isn't unfamiliar to many Arkansas cities that don't accept glass in their curbside pickup because of the hazards it poses. The cities that do accept glass require it to be separated from most of the rest of the recycling materials.

If not separated at the curb, glass can cause numerous problems with the recycling process, according to recycling officials in Arkansas.

Glass can shatter and contaminate other recyclable materials, posing a safety risk to employees who hand-sort the materials. Workers at Recycle America in Little Rock sort the recycling as it travels down a conveyor belt and into machinery that turns the materials into bales.

Another problem is glass can't be broken down in Recycle America's machinery.

It's not much of a moneymaker, either. Recycle America pays several hundred dollars -- Manager Rusty Miller estimated from $600 to $700 or more -- per load for a truck to haul the glass that is separated by workers to Ripple Glass in Kansas City, Mo. Recycle America sends about one truck each month, and Miller said the expense and labor of handling glass is too much.

"Glass is a money loser for us," Miller said. "Way back in the day, about 15 years ago, it wasn't a money loser. We were able to break even."

That's when recycling was less user-friendly and Recycle America workers sorted glass by color to a different company, Miller said.

Recyclers across the country face financial challenges because of China's crackdown on the amount of contamination allowed in bales that are exported to the country. China has long been the leading recyclables buyer in the world, but its recent anti-pollution program cut the allowable contamination rate to 0.5 percent, and many recyclers consider that a near-impossible requirement to meet.

While some recycling has been shipped recently to other Asian countries that critics say are less prepared to handle the materials, much of the material is left to the United States, where a glut of supply and lack of demand has driven the value of the bales downward.

Recyclables are unloaded from a truck Wednesday at the Waste Management recycling facility in Little Rock. Little Rock, North Little Rock and Sherwood are phasing out curbside glass recycling.
Recyclables are unloaded from a truck Wednesday at the Waste Management recycling facility in Little Rock. Little Rock, North Little Rock and Sherwood are phasing out curbside glass recycling.

THE BIGGER CITIES

Currently four of Arkansas' 10 cities of 40,000 or more residents offer curbside glass recycling: Little Rock, North Little Rock, Conway and Fayetteville.

Residents of the other six cities -- Fort Smith, Jonesboro, Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville and Pine Bluff -- can deposit glass in recycling drop-off centers, according to the cities' websites. After April 1, Little Rock and North Little Rock residents will still be able to take glass to Recycle America's facility in Little Rock's industrial park.

In Fayetteville, residents must place glass, plastics, aluminum and steel in one bin and paper and cardboard in another bin.

Conway residents are instructed to separate glass from the rest of their recyclables. The glass is picked up separately by a company that pays to repurpose it, said Whitney Reuschling, Conway's recycling coordinator.

Generally, the city is able to recycle its materials because it's found buyers for them, Reuschling said.

Conway accepts only No. 1 and No. 2 plastics, but it also accepts shredded paper and even expanded polystyrene, commonly known by the trademarked name Styrofoam, but not the kind used for coffee cups or packing peanuts.

"We're very fortunate that we still do accept Styrofoam," Reuschling said, noting that even a smaller city like Conway has experienced some of the troubles caused by China's recycling import restrictions.

Other cities have not found markets as financially workable.

Jonesboro formerly collected glass in its curbside "blue bags" as a part of Legacy Landfill's seven-city curbside recycling program in Craighead County. Like Regional Recycling, Legacy Landfill is a state solid waste district.

Jonesboro took over most of the responsibilities of the program starting July 1, purchased recycling carts and started using trucks that pick up the recycling as they go along, said Robert Hendrix, Legacy Landfill's executive director. Those trucks load materials by picking them up, dumping them in the truck and crushing them, he said. That shatters glass and causes hazards for workers trying to sort materials, he said.

"It's really a safety issue when you go to an automated system," Hendrix said.

It's one of the downsides to a system that is supposed to make things easier.

In Craighead County, the cities of Bay, Bono, Brookland, Caraway, Lake City and Monette still have curbside glass recycling with the "blue bag" program, which accepts glass, metal cans and No. 1 and No. 2 plastics.

Recycling glass will be revenue-neutral for the cities, Hendrix said, because they won't produce much glass. As a result, Ripple Glass will probably pick it up for free, he said.

Little Rock had collected glass separately before it entered into a 2012 contract with North Little Rock, Sherwood and Waste Management to go to a single-stream recycling method. Before, all recyclables were separated by material, and participation was low in the recycling program in general -- less than 40 percent. Recycle America had its workers separate glass by color and sent it to Strategic Materials in Oklahoma. It wasn't a money-loser back then, Miller said.

Under the single-stream method started in 2012, all recycling goes into one container, and participation rose to 75 percent to 80 percent.

The company has been down on glass recycling since initially agreeing to the 2012 contract. In March 2017, Pulaski County justices of the peace approved a contract with Waste Management to offer curbside pickup in the county's unincorporated area, and the company said glass could not be a part of it.

CONTAMINATION

While glass recycling faces its own challenges, recycling in general is staring down financial inviability.

Waste Management, one of the nation's largest recycling and waste companies, projects lower recycling revenue for 2018, according to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission 8-K filing from July. For the past two years, landfill revenue has increased as recycling revenue has declined, according to the company.

The company, like others, has been dumping what it says are recycling loads too contaminated to process into landfills. That contamination rate was 32 percent for Little Rock, North Little Rock and Sherwood this summer.

But Waste Management and other companies have cited China's restrictions on recycling imports as the main reason behind recycling's financial troubles.

The conflict with China over recycling predates any official action by President Donald Trump to tax Chinese goods, according to news reports. Several recycling officials told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette they do not believe Chinese tariffs have had an impact on glass recycling or recycling generally.

China has long had ambitions to create its own circular recycling system, said George Wheatley, public sector service manager for Waste Management in Arkansas and other Southern states. A circular system is one that supplies Chinese manufacturers with necessary supplies without relying on imported recyclables to maintain production.

In 2013, China began auditing incoming recycling, years after the country approved import regulations related to it, according to Resource Recycling. In February 2017, China announced its National Sword program, which placed plastics and high-moisture paper products under increased scrutiny.

China placed more of an emphasis on the quantity of goods instead of quality and even arrested people accused of smuggling illegal scraps into the country. The country approved fewer recycling import permits. In July 2017, the country proposed contamination limits of 0.3 percent for imported recyclables and finalized a limit of 0.5 percent in November.

Trump's first official act on tariffs and China took place in August 2017, and the first tariff was announced in January.

That doesn't mean tariffs haven't had a further impact on recyclables. The country imposed a retaliatory tariff of 25 percent on aluminum, paper and plastic scrap.

Further complicating matters is that shipments of recyclables to other Asian countries have been followed by restrictions in those countries on imports, too, according to Resource Recycling.

Waste Management has been concerned with contamination of its recycling for years, because China has clamped down on what it accepts and as contamination slows down the process of actually processing the materials.

Plastic bags aren't currently accepted, so they are the main contaminant, officials have said. They still won't be accepted under the proposed contract revision with Waste Management. Adding glass to the mix of unaccepted items will require some adjustment, and officials plan to make that a part of an ongoing education campaign.

Little Rock City Director Kathy Webb posted on her official Facebook page that the city was looking into its glass recycling options and would try to educate residents on the upcoming changes.

A Section on 10/15/2018

Print Headline: Little Rock to end glass product recycling operations

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Archived Comments

  • Jfish
    October 15, 2018 at 10:03 a.m.

    mbaiv, I do agree with your thinking. I have always thought that if a city was able to collect most of the aluminum and tin cans that their residents use, they could at least break even even if plastics and glass were losers. However, I am not sure about the logistics and the markets and there are many people who just won't recycle unless there is a monetary incentive. Murphy, I believe that is the plastic containers they are talking about.

  • drs01
    October 15, 2018 at 1:05 p.m.

    Whether you agree with this recycling or not. You will pay $4.14 each month for the privilege of making some contractor a tidy profit. I refuse to recycle those political post cards I get from candidates who are recycling themselves to continue their political career. We have too many of them in this upcoming election. I burn them, as I hope will be their fate in November.

  • MBAIV
    October 15, 2018 at 1:39 p.m.

    There's a point -- the fee we MUST pay each month. As the city (and waste district) continues to restrict what their contract collector will pick up and we are forced to return to hauling our own recycles to various collection points (Kroger, glass company, some central drop-off location, commercial recycling companies, etc) if we want to recycle the growing list of "NO" items -------- we need an Opt-Out option for the city program.

  • LR1955
    October 15, 2018 at 2:46 p.m.

    MBAIV, Opt-Out option for the city program, I know you can call the city and have your yellow-lid recycle bin picked up. And while you have them on the line, see if that Opts you from the charges on your Utility Billing statement.

  • MBAIV
    October 15, 2018 at 4:07 p.m.

    LR1955: The utilities don't bill me - oh, increase my bill, and then tell me that I won't be getting the service/product. If the water company or electric company bills me, I expect to be able to get water or electricity. Yet the city is billing me - increasing my bill - for recycling and reducing the service nearly to the point of not being very useful to me. So, try again.

  • LR1955
    October 15, 2018 at 4:41 p.m.

    Right off the City of LR website....

    The following is a guideline for items accepted on the City's program that can be placed in the cart:

    Plastic Bottles and Containers #1-5 & 7, - any size of color of rigid plastic
    Carton Containers - e.g., milk, juice, aseptic drink boxes
    Aluminum and Steel Cans—e.g., beverage, fruit, vegetable, soup cans
    Aluminum foil, pie tins, pots and pans - all household metals except glass cookware tops
    Glass—clear, brown, green bottles and jars
    Aerosal cans - must be empty
    Paper—e.g., newspaper, junk mail, magazines, brown paper bags, phone books, envelopes
    Shredded Paper - Place in a clear plastic bag and tie off
    Corrugated Cardboard—cut to fit inside recycle cart
    To learn more about recycling visit our recycling webpages

  • LR1955
    October 15, 2018 at 4:45 p.m.

    MBAIV, all I was saying is in LR I get a Utility Billing Services bill that has break outs for garbage, water, & sewer. Recycling is not listed but I believe it is part of the garbage. Question is if you turn in your recycle cart & quit participating, will your combo bill go down.

  • NoUserName
    October 15, 2018 at 6:18 p.m.

    I'm with DRS. Pay a contractor to essentially pick up cardboard which they can sell for profit isn't my idea of recycling. I'm not that altruistic. Given the changes, I'd rather not continue to pay for it. However, as I recall reading somewhere, there is no option to credit the fee for anyone who DOES return the cart. Also, for completion, I believe residents only pay a portion of the fee. LR covered the increase when WM took over. What happens to the April increase I've not yet heard.

  • MBAIV
    October 15, 2018 at 6:22 p.m.

    LR1955: Check the list in the article -- many of the items that are on the city website are in the NON-recyclables list. Maybe the new list doesn't start til April 1st -- but in general, the Little Rock website isn't very up to date for lots-o-subjects. I don't know how often it is updated but it isn't very often. I often try to find items that one would think should be on the website - even highlighted - and they are not there (like snow closures).

  • TheGoodGuy
    October 15, 2018 at 6:49 p.m.

    Yup, I'm done with this. RBear, the whole "take the plastic bags with you when you go to the store and drop them off on your way in" bit doesn't hold water. There are a LOT of people just like me who no longer even go into the store. We order online, go to the store, THEY bring it out to us, we go home. It would take a special effort to just go in the store. Then you'd have to remember to take the bags with you when you do go. We often forget and it will be 3 months later before we can remember them to take them in. So, I'm just done recycling. This list they have now is complete crap. It just isn't worth the cost anymore as most people in this city don't care and will throw whatever they want in there anyway contaminating the whole truck.

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