By Nancy Drumheller Central Va. Waste Management Authority We must clean up our act! Recycling containers are for recyclable items only. Placing items, such...

By Nancy Drumheller
Central Va. Waste Management Authority

We must clean up our act!

Recycling containers are for recyclable items only. Placing items, such as plastic bags or food-contaminated containers, that are not accepted in your curbside recycling cart/bin or the drop-off recycling containers cause contamination issues and add additional processing and disposal costs.

Do not bag your recycling in plastic bags. Anything in a plastic bag will not be recycled! The authority’s recycling vendors will no longer pick up unwanted items like plastic bags and other non-recyclables, including food-contaminated containers. To avoid this, visit and make sure you recycle right!

Why is this now more important than ever? Nearly all of the paper and cardboard collected in central Virginia for recycling was marketed to paper mills in China. Yes, “was” is the operative word. China “was” the largest importer of recyclable material in the world until recently when they have stopped allowing certain commodities such as mixed paper into the country because of poor quality. In other words, when non-recyclable items, like plastic bags, get mixed in bales of paper or cardboard, it contaminates the paper, and the Chinese are tired of buying poor quality feedstock for their mills.

Shutting off the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials has driven market prices down to a level that is not sustainable and has even rendered at least one-third of the volume collected in residential and drop-off recycling programs to little or no value. This is forcing recycling companies and municipalities to question the economic viability of recycling, especially products such as mixed paper and glass.

The continued success of recycling programs locally and globally is dependent on economically feasible end markets. In the past, revenue generated from the sale of recyclables has covered labor and equipment necessary to sort, bale and transport the commodities to respective markets.

According to Kim Hynes, the CVMA’s executive director, “Nearly all of the paper and cardboard collected in CVWMA residential recycling programs was marketed to Chinese mills because of the high demand. Other buyers such as Vietnam, India, Korea and domestic mills are now flooded with scrap paper and are becoming pickier than ever on accepting the material.”

This situation with China and the recycling markets has created a disruption in the industry, the reality of which will reveal the true costs of recycling, particularly as markets fluctuate and local processors seek new outlets to sell collected commodities. Moreover, we don’t want to lose the recycling momentum we have spent the better part of 30 years fostering. We, like many communities across the country, have been hopeful that the situation would change sooner rather than later. But, we can’t keep waiting. We need to accept and adapt this new “normal,” which will mean adjusting behavior and facing increasing costs to localities, and therefore residents.

What lessons have we learned from all of this? “The most important is that you can always find a market for a quality product. China doesn’t want poor quality feedstock materials and neither do we. The answer is to do a better job of preventing undesirable materials from getting into recycling bins/carts to begin with…” said Lori Scozzafava, senior vice president of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., a national solid waste consulting company.

The authority collaborates with 13 local governments in central Virginia. It provides residential recycling to 275,000 households in nine jurisdictions and also provides recycling opportunities at 35 drop-off locations for cardboard, paper, cans, bottles, cartons and other plastic containers.