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Wondering Why Logan City No Longer Accepts #3 Through #7 Plastics? It's Too Contaminated

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
A child in a recycling site in China. Before the ban on import of contaminated plastics, China took 70% of the US's plastic recycling.

Earlier this month the city of Logan announced that it was only able to recycle #1 and #2 plastics. For some, this is unfortunate, especially because so many people in Logan like recycling.

I spoke to a few students on the Utah State University campus in Logan on their thoughts.

“Recycling is super important. I think we need to me more responsible for how we treat the earth,” said Madison Landon, a human biology major.

“I think it’s important and I do when I can - mostly whenever there’s a bin that’s convenient. We lived in an apartment and included in our utilities was a recycling bin that was emptied every two weeks,” said Taylor Morris, an aviation major.

“I really think that recycling is good, and so me and my roommates always do it,” said a student who identified herself as Shelby.

I can relate. When I was getting my undergrad at UC Berkeley, my college housing cooperative had a full-blown recycling program. We had one bin for each of the seven types of plastic and one for paper and cardboard, an entire dumpster for composting and a room dedicated to rehoming reusable items. I tried to carry that ethic with me when I moved to Logan for my graduate work. I compost my food scraps, I sort out my glass and take it to a drop-off once a month, and I religiously use our city co-mingled recycling bins.

Then, Logan City announced it could no longer accept #3-7 plastics in its co-mingled recycling. I eat an entire tub of yogurt a week, and that tub is a #5. That’s 52 tubs a year that I now have to toss in the trash. As I stare at my growing pile of yogurt tubs, I had to ask myself: why?

“All of our recycling for the entire life of the curbside recycling program has gone to a company called Mountain Fiber. They were baling them all together and then able to sell them that way. When they were told they didn’t have a market for the 3-7 anymore, we needed to stop taking them,” said Emily Malik, the Logan City Conservation Coordinator. “It absolutely has to do with China imposing stricter regulations on any recycling or plastics received in their country. I think they still accept plastics but only with 0.5% contamination which is a standard that we’ve never been able to achieve.”

In April of 2018, China banned the import of contaminated recycling materials. Before this, my yogurt containers would be baled by Mountain Fiber along with other plastic materials and sold to the highest bidder. Ultimately, 70% of these plastic bales would end up in China.

“It was people picking through your plastic on the shores. We’d just offload all of this plastic. They had a labor force that would pick through it and sell it to the people that recycle it,” Malik said.

“The conditions for workers in these places are horrific,” said Stiv Wilson, the campaigns director at the Story of Stuff Project. The Story of Stuff is a non-profit organization that educates consumers on where their plastics go.

“Unless recycling is very well regulated, it’s a very dirty and dangerous process," he said. "You know, recycling is not done by fairies and unicorns - it is a business, and it’s a dirty business. I ultimately think it was a good move for China to tell the world, ‘Deal with your own waste.’”

Since China banned the import of contaminated recycling, its plastics imports dropped by 99%. Other countries like Malaysia and India tried to pick up the slack, but were unable to cope with the incessant supply.

“After China closed its doors so did Vietnam and India and Thailand and Malaysia because they were just being flooded with the garbage of the world. It is not valuable enough to turn into a new product because virgin plastic is much cheaper than recycled plastic at this time,” Wilson said.

So that’s it. I can’t recycle my yogurt tubs anymore because our recycling is too contaminated to sell abroad.

“The biggest contaminant is plastic bags," Malik said. "Not only just the regular shopping bags but we get plastic film, cereal bags, chip bags, bread bags, produce bags - I could go on. And that’s probably 50% if not more of the contamination that comes off the line. It’s insane how much plastic bags are in the contamination loads.” 

Worse yet, #3-7 plastics are not very recyclable in the first place.

“The vast majority of #1s are going into textiles,” Wilson said. “There’s a huge market for that. There isn’t a good market for recycled Styrofoams. It’s all governed by the laws of economics. Certain polymers are harder to collect, manage, clean, sort, extrude, and the products you can make out of them might not have any value.”

The ban on imports of recycling in China is making the US’s recycling industry more lucrative, but many of these companies focus on recycling pop bottles – which are made out of desirable #1 plastics. There might not be a place for my yogurt tubs for a while. So what can I do?

“Ultimately, the taxpayer is going to be on the hook for disposal, whether you’re landfilling them, burning them or recycling them,” Wilson said. “Logan would benefit from not having this stuff in the system, but the only way that’s going to happen is by regulation. It’s not political, it’s not partisan, it’s just the reality. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade in a meaningful timeframe. It will become mountains - and I don’t say that lightly. You just got to keep trying: constant pressure continuously applied.”