View Full Version : Recycling thrives as an export to Asia

01-18-2006, 08:13 PM
Demand overseas has helped improve service in the area

By Phillip Reese -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Most mornings, Scott Fulton helps China build steel bridges, make cardboard boxes and mold plastic bottles.
Fulton isn't in construction and doesn't toil in a factory - he doesn't even live abroad. He works for Sacramento County, driving a large garbage truck with a "Freedom Isn't Free" sticker on the window. He cruises from house to house, using the truck's mechanical arm to pick up bins full of recyclable goods.

Until recently, he didn't know that much of the recyclable material he collects winds up on a boat for Asia.

"I thought it stayed in America," Fulton said. "I would never guess that."

Asia's rapid industrialization has sent demand - and prices - soaring for raw materials. Increasingly, an important source of those raw materials is the cans, newspapers and bottles set out at the curb, waiting to be recycled into their next incarnation.

The trend is making a difference in the Central Valley and across the state, with increased demand leading directly to better services, officials and industry leaders say.

In the five years ending in 2004, California has seen the value of scrap and waste exported to China soar tenfold, to $875 million from $85 million in 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

As demand increased, so did supply. Higher prices and better technology allow more goods - many additional types of plastics, for example - to be recycled.

Sacramento County workers picked up 60,981 tons of recyclables during 2004, up from 46,702 in 1999. And those figures don't include most of the county's more densely populated incorporated areas.

As pickups increased, so did the amount of money earned by the county. During 2004, the county's recycling program generated more than $1.5 million in revenue. That's not enough to offset all costs, but it is way up from previous years.

To take further advantage of the rising prices, the county is negotiating two new contracts and will allow such items as plastic bags to be recycled at no extra cost to taxpayers. And the city of Sacramento is considering picking up recyclables once a week, instead of every other week.

"Asia, China in particular, is drawing our resources like crazy," said Doug Kobold, solid waste planner for the Sacramento County Department of Waste Management and Recycling. "They don't have it, so they are importing their resources from wherever they can get them."

Recycling's emergence as a growing export opportunity likely isn't uppermost in the minds of most people at they sort their garbage. For cities and counties, recycling is a landfill and environmental issue. For many families, it's a habit driven home by decades of Earth Day and ecology lessons at school and, increasingly, municipal requirements.

Patrick Sawyer doesn't remember a time when his family didn't recycle.

When he was younger, he helped sort recyclables before taking them outside. Now, the 15-year-old Carmichael resident just takes all recyclables mixed together out to the family's can.

"It means we don't have to put as much stuff in the landfills," Sawyer said. "It gets reused. The quality of the product is no different if it gets recycled."

Once recycling leaves the Sawyers' house, it's picked up by workers like Fulton, who, on a recent morning, worked his route in a quiet residential part of Arden. Nearly every house had a recycling bin out. Several people ran barefoot or in their pajamas from their homes to belatedly move their recyclables to the curb.

It wasn't always like this, Fulton said. Recycling participation was not as widespread before the county started letting residents put all their recyclables in one can during the late 1990s.

"Participation now is at least 85 percent," Fulton said. "It's going up. The more the kids know about recycling, the more they push their parents to recycle."

The state's Integrated Waste Management Act requires every city and county to divert at least 50 percent of their waste away from from their landfills - another catalyst for bolstered recycling programs.

Fulton can fit the contents of about 600 bins in a truckload. Once he finishes, he takes the recyclables to a transfer station off Fruitridge Road. He dumps the goods on top of a large pile. A worker operating a front-end loader pushes the recyclables into a hole. A truck waits beneath. Once filled, the truck heads off to a facility in Oakland run by California Waste Solutions, a contractor that works with the county. There, the recyclables are sorted and, eventually, sold.

"It's mostly (going) overseas," said Jeff Donlevy, head of the recycling transfer station that the city of Sacramento uses. "China is the largest population in the world. Their environment just doesn't make the resources to make paper. They just don't have the trees."

Cities and waste management companies across the state and the West go through similar processes when recycling goods. And, like here, much of what they sell winds up in the same places. "Asia," said Alec Cooley, president of the California Resource Recovery Agency, "has definitely been driving markets on the West Coast."

Revenue from recycling sales offsets much of the cost of collections for local municipal governments. Cities aren't making a profit, but they aren't charging taxpayers as much either.

The city of Sacramento, for example, charges about $2.55 monthly to residents to pick up recyclables every other week. That compares to the $15 each month each customer pays for a 96-gallon can for regular trash service.

The city is considering doubling its recycling pickups to weekly collection. A recent survey indicated that residents liked the idea but didn't want to pay extra for it. That's where demand for recyclable goods can play a role, said Harold Duffey, the city of Sacramento's integrated waste general manager.

A lot of stuff that goes into the trash could go into the recycling bin, Duffey said.

"There's probably at least another 30,000 tons of material that is still in the regular trash can," he said.

Weekly recycling pickups would likely cost residents another 75 cents to $1 each month because demand for recyclables is high.

If residents were able to reduce the size of their regular trash can, the city would charge them a buck or two less to pick it up. So the extra recycling cost could be offset by reduced trash pickup costs, Duffey said.

Recycling officials recently made their pitch to city leaders. Duffey is optimistic a new plan - weekly recycling coupled with smaller bins for other trash - will be approved this year.

"Think of it this way: We get paid $10 for every ton of material that we recycle," Duffey said. "We are charged $37 for every ton that we drop off at the landfill."

Changes are also coming to unincorporated Sacramento County. Officials are negotiating two new contracts that will pay them a flat fee for recyclables instead of tying payments to the current market. (The city currently gets a flat fee that can rise if the market is booming.)

The county's contract will apply to services north of Calvine Road; recycling pickup south of Calvine Road is handled by a contractor.

The county will also soon be picking up several new types of materials, both north and south of Calvine Road. More types of plastics will be collected. So will items like orange juice cartons and shredded paper. The county will also start collecting plastic bags.

"We've gone from a product that you had to pay to get rid of, to now a product that has market value," Kobold said.

This year county officials expect even more revenue.

While prices fluctuate, demand for recycled goods has increased steadily for several years. The price per ton for 21 of 34 types of recyclable paper tracked by Recycling Today magazine, for example, increased 25 percent or more in the San Francisco region from 2001 to 2005.

Ideally, that means more companies will invest in the equipment needed to process more types of materials, and more goods can go from the trash can to the recycling bin.

More goods would lead to increased collection costs for municipal recycling programs but also, in the best case scenario, more revenue.

"On the whole," said Bob Nelson, chairperson of the local agency technical committee of the California Resource Recovery Agency, "it seems like commodity prices are up for just about everything."

All of which means more stuff in the bins that Fulton, the collections equipment operator, picks up. And more stuff heading from the Central Valley to China.

Fulton's not complaining.

"Every can," said Fulton, who's been on the job for more than a decade, "is a new experience."


web page (http://www.sacbee.com/content/news/environment/story/14087073p-14917378c.html)

01-19-2006, 12:00 PM
It dosen't leave the country for that long,it comes right back....another Barbie for the kid that can't read.