Republic Services Would Appreciate it if You'd Stop Putting Live Ammo and Dead Animals in the Recycling

by

3 comments
Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19).

The Republic Services recycling center in New Russia Township, Ohio, receives, on average, one bowling ball per day.

Of the 400 tons of ostensibly recyclable material that’s trucked to the facility from municipal, commercial and industrial clients stretching from Toledo to Cleveland, about 60 percent is “recovered.” That means 60 percent is sorted, baled and shipped to consumers who put the material to various new uses — recycled, in other words.

The rest is mostly trash.

On the hangar-like tipping floor where material has been dumped, mountains of cardboard (from the commercial clients) have sprung up next to the cascades of multicolored, multi-textured detritus (from curbside municipal programs).



Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19).
Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19).

“We see an old shoe every few minutes,” operations manager Dan Schoewe told Scene at the facility recently, pointing at the children’s slide, toolbox and basketball within view. “We see baby diapers, scrap steel, guns, ammunition, propane tanks, dead animals. And when we get material like that, everything around it is contaminated too.”

Guns? Scene wanted to confirm.

“Oh yeah,” Schoewe said. “We’ve had them come in when they’re loaded. We get shotgun shells a lot actually. I’ve got a five-gallon bucket, and I keep all the ammunition until we get a gun, and then I give it over to the Sheriff.”

Schoewe couldn’t speculate on why anyone would throw a loaded gun into a recycling bin, but said in some cases, people just toss out boxes of material without knowing their contents. Others, he said, have a warped idea of what it means to ‘recycle'.

“They think, ‘Oh, someone else could use this. I’ll just recycle it.’ But that’s now how it works. That’s not how our program works anyway. I always say, ‘when in doubt, throw it out.’”

The biggest problem for recycling facilities like this one, 35 miles west of Cleveland, has grown more costly in a much tighter market for recycled goods. It isn’t apathetic folks who don’t recycle at all. It’s what Schoewe called “wishful recyclers,” who fill up their bins with items they hope are recyclable, but often cause more harm than good.

“It’s sad, because these are people trying to go above and beyond,” he said.

The Republic recycling center installed new equipment at a cost of $9 million in 2012. It sorts paper, plastic, cardboard, aluminum and glass by ocular and magnetic means before shuttling it along specified conveyor belts where human sorters extract items that haven’t been properly sorted. The 30 sorters per 10-hour shift function as the machines’ quality control. The material ends up in segregated bins and is then baled — compacted into rectangular cuboids — and stacked before being shipped to destinations coordinated by a materials marketing team.

Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19).
Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19).
Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19).

Until recently, a major destination for the nation’s recyclables was China. But starting last year, China has refused to accept a number of materials, including plastic and mixed paper products, unless they are extremely clean.

“They use to give us five percent contamination,” Schoewe said, meaning that for every 100 pounds of a specific material shipped to China, five pounds were permitted to be something other than that material. “But then they went down to half a percent.”

This strict standard meant that China was frequently rejecting loads, and Republic was forced to pay $8-10,000 per load, Schoewe estimated, in freight costs.

“It’s a real gamble to send something overseas,” he said. “You better have high-quality stuff.” (In related news, Canada is now spending more than $1 million to ship 69 containers of rotting garbage back from the Philippines, where it was sent in 2013 and 2014, improperly labeled as recyclable plastics. The Philippines' president, Rodrigo Durterte, threatened to dump the garbage in Canadian territorial waters if the country failed to collect the shipments.)

This dramatic change — in which Asian countries like China have prioritized domestic waste disposal and declared that they will no longer be the planet's garbage can — has forced Republic and other material recovery firms to ship domestically, where there’s considerably lower capacity.

“Now there’s an overabundance of supply,” Schoewe said. “So you can imagine what that does to the price.”

He said Republic is now paying their purchasers to take mixed paper products off their hands.

“We went from making $50 per ton to paying $10 per ton,” he said. “We’re still doing it, because we’re committed to recycling, but it’s harder and harder.”

And Republic can’t keep its bales in storage until the market rebounds. They get 400 tons of material every day, and don’t have the storage capacity to keep material long-term.

Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19).
Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19).

“In January, I had 1,200 bales sitting around,” Schoewe said. “That’s the total capacity of this room. We couldn’t move it, and this stuff has a shelf-life. Sometimes there’s a little pop or milk in there. It starts to break down, starts to smell. We’re at the mercy of the market. I’ve seen cardboard sell for $200 a ton and I’ve seen it sell for $10. I do 1,000 tons per month, so I either made $200,000 or $10,000. And we didn’t do anything different in the middle. It’s a rough business.”

That’s why Republic and municipalities are pushing so hard to educate residents about recycling protocol. The lower the contamination levels, the higher quality of the material and the more money they make. (Or, in some cases, the less money they lose.)

It’s not like private citizens on Ohio’s north coast should be losing sleep about a major corporation’s ability to maximize its profits. But they should be concerned about the ramifications of the current market. In Philadelphia, for example, fully half of the city's recyclable tonnage is not recycled at all but shipped to an incinerator and burned, increasing pollution levels and the risk of disease for the largely minority communities who live nearby.

In some cases, municipal recycling contracts have become so expensive that they've abandoned curbside recycling collection all together. Schoewe said he understands why some cities make that decision, but said it’s frustrating because once you change someone’s behavior, “it’s hard to change it back.”

(Note: In Cuyahoga County, no communities have ended their curbside recycling programs due to cost. Price increases will not kick in until their current contracts end. The Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District told Scene that the increase they will likely see will "either be in the form of a new fee - called a recycling processing fee in the range of $45 - $90 per ton, or an increase in the cost for collection which is on a per household per month basis.)

Last summer, the City of Cleveland began re-issuing $100 fines for failure to comply with curbside waste disposal rules.

The Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District has helpful information related to individual municipalities' programs available on its website. It highlights that there are really only five categories of items that should be recycled these days: cans, cartons, glass, paper & cardboard boxes, and plastic jugs & bottles.

Schoewe said that what’s most important on his end, assuming you’re recycling the proper material, is that items are “empty, clean and dry.” He also pleaded that folks not recycle plastic bags, which frequently get caught in the machines and are difficult to remove from individual recycling streams.

“Listen, if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t want to recycle,” said Schoewe, “buddy, I’m not trying to force it on you. Just don’t contaminate our good recycling materials.”

Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Republic Services Recycling Center, (5/18/19).

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment
 

Add a comment