Wyoming residents probably haven't noticed much change in how cities collect recycling over the past year. But your bottles, cans and paper may be going to different places than they were a year ago.
At a large warehouse at the Laramie Landfill, Solid Waste Division Manager Brooks Webb stands near a vertical conveyor belt that pushes recycling up into a large bin. He describes how the recycling is loaded into bails and then hauled to a facility in Denver for further processing.
But the facility in Denver is not its final destination. Most recycling used to go to China, nearly 45 percent of the world's plastic, but now it's unclear where it will go. Vietnam, India and recyclers in the U.S. have picked up the slack.
China has stopped importing nearly all plastic and paper recycling. Their new restrictions started a year ago, creating challenges around the world. Many communities, even in Wyoming, are now struggling to find buyers for their materials, and more recycling is now going to the landfill.
But Webb says in Laramie only 9 percent of recycling is going unrecycled. That's significantly better than the national average of 25 percent, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association. He says it's because Wyoming residents are good at keeping garbage out of it. And he says the relatively small amount the state produces makes it easier to find buyers. But Webb says recycling has become more expensive for communities.
"We used to actually get a rebate back for our materials. Now we're actually paying a tip fee. The costs have kind of switched to where we're basically paying more to get rid of the material now," Webb says.
Despite this, Webb says recycling is still more cost effective than putting the material in a landfill.
The town of Jackson sends its waste to a landfill in Idaho, a big expense for the town that is offset by Jackson's profitable recycling program.
Jackson makes more money on recycling because it asks residents to sort it. Heather Overholser, the superintendent of solid waste and recycling for Teton County, says there is a bigger market for presorted recycling. Programs where residents put everything in one bin, called single-stream recycling, carry more contamination. For example, cardboard.
"If there is plastic mixed in with it, or if there is food waste mixed in with it, that's considered contamination," says Overholser
Contamination was one of the major reasons China stopped importing plastic and paper recycling. But Overholser says asking residents to sort their materials can also lead to fewer people bothering to recycle at all. According to a Harris poll, 66 percent of people say they wouldn't recycle if it wasn't easy to do.
Overholser says people often forget about the other parts of the phrase, "reduce, reuse, recycle."
"Reduction truly is the most important part of that. So if you can figure out other ways to reduce the waste that's being generated in the first place, that's ideal," Overholser said.
To reduce waste, Jackson is moving forward with an ordinance that will ban single-use plastic shopping bags. Plastic bags are not considered cost-effective to recycle. But some communities are weighing the benefits of recycling at all.
Riverton is the only town in Fremont County that provides curbside recycling. Superintendent of Solid Waste Disposal Operations Andrew Frey says Fremont county's main goal is to protect the environment and collecting, and transporting small amounts of recycling uses a lot of fossil fuels. Frey says that's led the county to make some tough choices.
"Does it make sense to collect product in far, remote places like Jeffery City or Lycite?" Frey asks.
This is why most recycling programs in Wyoming don't accept glass. In most cases, emissions from transporting and recycling glass hurts the environment more than burying it in a landfill would. Plus, unsorted glass contaminates other recycling materials. Shipping recycling across oceans to Asia also has a hefty environmental cost. That's why Frey sees a silver lining to China turning down our plastic.
"The carbon footprint around shipping product that far doesn't make sense when we have so much industry within the United States. And now what we're seeing is, that domestic market is starting to come alive," says Frey.
Frey says it's true, recyclers are struggling to pick up the slack. But he says the best scenario is actually for U.S. recycling to get processed and reused right here in the U.S.