Waste Management Is Shifting Recycling Emphasis

Waste Management Inc. (WM), Arizona’s largest waste management company, is changing the way it handles potential recycled items.

Because of a decision by the Chinese government to ban importing of all recycled materials, especially plastics, by 2020, WM is shifting its recycling emphasis to what it is calling the “Three R’s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.”

Most people recognize the distinctive dark green and orange logo — WM — almost immediately. WM is the largest waste hauler in the United States.

Tabatha Rios, WM Construction Account Manager for Central and Northern Arizona, shared details about current operations and changes underway.

“Because of reduction of recycled materials going to China, the result is depressed markets for recyclable materials,” she says. “Because of that, stricter quality requirements are being imposed by the now smaller pool of global buyers. That has taken a toll on recycling programs across North America. That certainly includes Prescott and Yavapai County — and all the other counties across Northern Arizona.”

Rios said WM is focusing more on finding ways to improve its waste management operations. “We need to encourage practices which will improve the quality of materials we recover.”

She stresses the first “R.” “People need to reduce the amount of waste being put into landfills.” She says consumers need to start asking if they really need to purchase nonfood items. Do they have similar items at home they can use? Are gently used second-hand items available? Is the item built to last, or is it a one-use item? And ultimately, how can such items be recycled when they are no longer needed.

A second recommendation is people donate items that have value to charity, sell them online or give to others who have need for them — “Reuse.”

A third point was that recycled materials must not be contaminated.

“It is not acceptable to dispose of hazardous materials that create safety threats to our workers or the public,” she says. “Such things as propane tanks, household or pool chemicals, drugs and needles or recyclable materials that have been ruined by liquids or other contaminants — these must be avoided.”

Even more serious is waste accompanied by food or other “consumable” items that accompany food, e.g., plastic bags and wrappings and the like. She detailed the kinds of items for which WM will provide curbside service in the greater Prescott area. Such items include clean glass and plastic bottles, jars and jugs, empty soda bottles, peanut butter jars, clean metal food containers like soup cans or empty aluminum beverage cans. The list also included clean paper products such as newspapers, office paper, mail and clean cardboard.

She said recyclable materials are sorted and transported to a Material Recovery Facility plant in Surprise. There, they are separated into individual commodities, baled and shipped to manufacturers who then turn them into new consumer products. WM investments in recycling technology have increased operation efficiency and improved the quality of recycling materials.

Rios noted that WM has added labor and slowed down processing lines to pick out contaminated materials.

Rios’ home office is in Prescott Valley. More typically, Rios is traveling border to border throughout Central and Northern Arizona to work with other WM personnel to accommodate changes. That’s especially true as regulations become more rigorous in communities and counties. Much of Rios’ job involves helping educate the public about the changes in the recycling industry.

When in Doubt, Throw It Out

Rios says a lot of confusion exists among consumers about what can be recycled.

“Our best advice — when in doubt, throw it out. Do not put in blue recycle bins,” she says.

“Many items cannot be recycled. Plastic bags and straws are single-use products. Those should go back to the local retailers for recycling through separate channels. Better yet, don’t use them to start with.”

Rios and her WM colleagues also collaborate with communities, businesses, schools and other partners to create more public awareness of what is recyclable.

She was especially critical of the amount of plastic being dumped into the ecosystem. Rios mentioned a recent study in National Geographic about the amount of toxic plastic in the world’s oceans. In some areas, the accumulated plastic floating in the ocean is as large as the state of Texas. Marine life cannot survive such an environment.

She mentioned other products — batteries, light bulbs, plastic toys, clothes, yard waste and coffee-soaked newspapers — that should not be put into recycle bins. “If people have questions about what they think they can recycle but are not certain — for example, computer or electronic equipment — they should check first before just dumping it into recycle.

She repeated, “When in doubt, dump it.”

A Prescott native who attended Yavapai College, Rios says WM is proud of its service in Arizona, having been here for 54 years. Statewide, more than 2,200 members belong to the WM team.

For further information about what to recycle, visit RecycleOftenRecycleRight.com.