Recycling is such a part of life now, North Texans might assume it’s going well. It’s not

Tony Broadbent is appalled at some of the items Fort Worth and Arlington residents put in their recycling carts.

“We have found bowling balls, parts of couches, even dirty diapers,” Broadbent said. “I don’t know who thinks a diaper can be recycled.”

Broadbent is operations manager of Republic Services’ recycling sorting center in Fort Worth, a warehouse northeast of downtown where essentially everything Fort Worth and Arlington residents put in their blue recycling carts winds up. While giving visitors a tour of the facility, Broadbent saw a leaf blower in a pile of recyclable goods waiting to be sorted.

Later the same day, his crews found a car seat belt buckle (with the belt still attached to the metal clasp), a medical trash bag, a broken 35 mm camera, a garden hose and a horseshoe — all items that can be dangerous for workers to handle, or can damage the equipment used in the sorting process.

Recycling is so commonplace in Fort Worth, Arlington and other North Texas cities that many residents feel they can place anything they want in the carts, and that someone will take care of it for them.

But that’s far from the truth, many experts say.

The recycling industry is being hit with a double whammy of problems. First, residents aren’t doing a good job of ensuring they only put recyclable items in the blue carts. And second, the value of goods that can be recycled — especially paper and plastic — has dropped to historically low levels.

If the situation doesn’t improve, officials say, cities could eventually be forced to cut back on the materials they accept in the carts — or perhaps stop curbside recycling altogether.

Or, cities could raise fees charged to taxpayers to cover the costs of recycling.

The recycling industry is facing perhaps its greatest crisis in the roughly 25 years or so since cities began offering residents recycling pickup at their curbs. And residents of cities across North Texas who either carelessly or accidentally place non-recyclable items in the blue carts are making matters even worse, they say.

For decades, China was the main buyer of recyclable goods in the United States. But a little more than a year ago China banned the import of most recycled plastic and paper.

One reason for China’s decision was that too much of the recycled material coming from the U.S. was contaminated by other recycled items that shouldn’t be there.

Of the roughly 550 tons of material taken to the Republic Services sorting facility in Fort Worth each day, Broadbent says, about 30 percent of it — 165 tons — is “contamination.” That means it’s stuff that residents should have put in their brown carts for regular trash.

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Daniel Reyna and Brent Wedell with the Blue Crew bag non-recyclable items from the blue bin Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in Fort Worth. Yffy Yossifor

Broadbent’s crew of roughly 27 workers per shift strives to remove all the contaminated material as the recycled goods move on conveyor belts. But it’s an imperfect effort.

Not all of the trash at Republic Services is from Fort Worth and Arlington. The facility accepts trash from many other cities, and also commercial customers.

In Fort Worth, a “Blue Crew” of six workers goes out each day and checks residents’ blue carts. They remove items that shouldn’t be in there and leave a note explaining the situation to the customer. Those who repeatedly are found to have put non-recyclable goods in the recycling carts can be charged additional garbage fees, and have their blue carts taken away.

As a result of the contamination and the drop in prices for recycled goods, cities and the corporations hired by them to remove solid waste are dealing with a backlog of recycled material and are looking for new places to sell it — often at a fraction of the cost compared to just a couple of years ago.

Financial pinch

Fort Worth is already feeling the financial pinch. During the past 12 months, the city has experienced a net loss of $1.06 million from the sale of recyclables, city data shows.

Under Fort Worth’s contract with Republic Services, the city paid the company $5.2 million in processing and disposal costs to sort its recyclable material. The city then was offered an 80 percent rebate on the sale of those recyclables in the secondary market — an arrangement that should have helped the city break even, or perhaps make a small surplus.

Instead, because of a drop in the value of recycled goods, the city’s rebate came to only $4.15 million, not enough to cover expenses, the records show.

Other cities are feeling the effects too. In Cleburne, Moore Waste and Recycling Services recently pulled its paper recycling bins from schools and a city hall parking lot, City Manager Steve Polasek said. The company, which pulled the bins in July, cited the lack of a market for recycled goods in a letter to customers.

“Unfortunately, what I have been hearing is, it’s going to boil down to the economics of it,” said Cassidy Campbell, senior environment planner at the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “If there’s no value for the recyclables, residents will (be asked to) say, ‘OK, I will pay to recycle.’ “

‘Know What To Throw”

For now, Fort Worth, Arlington and other cities are working together to improve the messages they’re sending to residents about what can and can’t be recycled. With the council of governments serving as the regional ring leader, the cities have joined a “Know What To Throw” campaign.

The idea is to ensure that residents only place recyclable material that can be placed into just a handful of broad categories — glass, plastic, mixed paper, metal cans and cardboard — into those blue containers. That strategy aims to increase the quality, if not the quantity, of the material coming from Tarrant County cities.

“We know a lot of people want to recycle as much as possible, and want to do the right thing,” said Robert Smouse, Fort Worth assistant director of code compliance and solid waste services. “But for now, it’s important that if people have any doubt, they throw the item away and not put it in the recycling cart.”

A review of recycling programs in various cities shows that much work remains to get the cities on the same page, in terms of a recycling message.

For example, Arlington still allows residents to recycle plastic grocery bags, even though those bags can damage recycling sorting equipment, wrapping around the moving parts of the hoppers and conveyor belts and causing the machinery to shut down.

Arlington officials say they are phasing out the acceptance of plastic bags, which most other North Texas cities already do not take. A precise phase-out completion date had not yet been determined, spokeswoman Susan Schrock said.

Hundreds of tons of recyclables are ready to be sorted at Republic Services’ facility in Fort Worth. Gordon Dickson

Another confusing message comes in Fort Worth, where residents are told on the city’s recycling website that they should not place clam shell-style, hard plastic containers — such as those used to package strawberries, blueberries and pre-washed greens such as lettuce — in their recycling containers. But officials at Republic Services, the company that provides recycling sorting services for Fort Worth, Arlington and other cities, say they can easily recycle the clam shell containers as long as they’re clean when they’re placed in the blue carts.

Fort Worth officials say they may soon update their website to provide more current information about what is accepted and what isn’t.

Growing pains

For those who recycle at home, it may feel as if residential recycling has always been around, even though most cities are relatively new at it.

Fort Worth began collecting recyclable material at curbs outside residents’ homes in 1991, initially using small bins that only held a few pounds of material. The city switched to full-size, 64-gallon recycling carts with wheels in 2003.

Arlington started curbside recycling in 1992, and expanded to full-size curbside carts in 2012.

Even though officials are now urging residents to be cautious with what they put in the blue recycling carts, they’re also trying to minimize how much trash winds up in the region’s 21 landfills, many of which are already almost full.

In Fort Worth, city officials as recently as 2011 thought they had another 50 years before the city’s landfill — which is near Interstate 20 and Dick Price Road on the southeast part of the city — would be all filled up. Now, they say it’s more likely that the landfill will be full by 2038, making it more important to reduce waste and increase recycling before the issue becomes a crisis.

The city owns the landfill, but it’s operated by Republic Services. Nearly 234,000 tons of waste is collected annually from more than 217,000 residential customers. That averages 2,157 pounds per household each year but, of that, only about 468 pounds is recycled.

Fort Worth’s recycling goals are aggressive. By 2037, the city wants to divert at least 60 percent of the collected garbage from the landfill, and 80 percent by 2045.

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Workers sort items on conveyer belts Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, at Republic Services sorting facility in Fort Worth. Yffy Yossifor

At recycling facilities such as the Republic Services sorting center, once the material is separated, it is then compacted into 1,500-pound bales, which are then sold to vendors for re-use both in the United States and abroad.

Michael Carleton, a project manager at the Dallas environmental engineering firm Arredondo, Zepeda & Brunz, said the North Texas region could soon reach a recycling crisis, if officials don’t focus quickly on improving the system.

He noted that many landfills serving the Dallas-Fort Worth region will be full in the next 30 years, and that it takes 15 years to plan, design and build a new landfill.

“They’re not actually in a crisis now,” he said in an interview. “But given that 15-year time frame, they’re got to start thinking about what’s going to happen with recycling right now.”

This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.