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SALT LAKE CITY — As some residents in southern Salt Lake County adjust to changes in what they can recycle, other communities in the northern and east portions of the county are reaffirming to their residents that paper, cardboard and other items are still recyclable.
The confusion of what is and isn’t acceptable in places throughout the county shows just how picky the global recycling market can be.
What you can and can’t recycle
To recap, the Trans-Jordan Landfill Board agreed late last month to alter what is recyclable with five of the seven communities that use the landfill: Draper, Midvale, Murray, Riverton and South Jordan. Residents in those cities are being told to only recycle corrugated cardboard, plastic bottles/jugs with necks and metal food/beverage cans.
Those changes are slowly going into effect because the different cities were tasked with informing their residents about the change. West Jordan officials clarified Friday that it has not yet asked residents to only focus on those items and Sandy, the other city that uses the landfill, also hasn’t opted into the changes. Both currently continue to encourage residents to recycle paper and cardboard, whereas Midvale officials told residents on Monday to start recycling only “the big three” items.
It’s worth noting there will still be places — generally public locations — where residents can go to recycle glass, white paper and newspapers within those communities, Midvale city manager Kane Loader, who is also the chair of the Trans-Jordan Landfill Board, told KSL Newsradio on Thursday. Those locations can be found by contacting the different cities.
On Friday, officials from Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District, which covers Cottonwood Heights, Herriman, Holladay, Kearns, Magna, Millcreek, parts of Murray, Taylorsville and many unincorporated communities in the county, cleared the air about what’s recyclable elsewhere in the county.
Residents can recycle all clean paper products, aside from shredded paper, as well as plastic containers, metal cans and cardboard.
“What we’ve been asking residents to do is not put thin-film plastics like shrinkwrap or plastic bags (in recycling)” Pam Roberts, executive director for Wasatch Front Waste and Recycling District, told KSL.com. “Then also, to make sure recycling is free from any food, liquid, things of that nature.”
Lance Allen, division director for Salt Lake City Waste & Recycling Division, added in a statement that Styrofoam also shouldn’t be recycled.
The items recycled are then brought to either Waste Management or Rocky Mountain Recycling, where contaminants — non-recyclable items — are pulled away. Machines then sort all non-contaminated items that are eventually sold off to companies who manufacture it into goods.
The reason why what’s recyclable changes
Think of recycling as a business that has environmental gains. When China — the global leader in the recycling market — decided to stop importing all recyclables, it crashed the worldwide recycling market because there weren’t many options to sell recyclable materials after that. So items ended up in a landfill if they were either contaminated or there wasn’t a place to sell them.
Trans-Jordan officials said they made changes to the items that can be recycled to reflect what’s trending in the market. Both they and Roberts pointed out that management companies have had to mostly rely on local buyers since China stopped taking in recyclable goods.
That’s why you may have different locations taking in different materials and also why the list of what you can and can’t recycle is ever-changing.
“Residents get frustrated because we’re always changing the game and we’re always saying ‘here are the things you can recycle’ and we’ve had a long list of things that you can put in the recycle bin,” Loader said. “But now with the markets basically shrinking, there are very few items that are going into the recycling stream.”
However, items Trans-Jordan will no longer accept could one day return once the market does, and that might be around the corner.
An emerging American recycling industry
Since there is still a demand for sustainability even after China stopped importing foreign trash, the U.S. has stepped up in the market since January 2018. As the Associated Press reported earlier this year, more mills reprocessing recycled items are popping up across the U.S.
Roberts said she’s excited that one of those will be in Utah in the future. In June, Crossroads Paper announced it planned to have a mill up and running in 2022. The plant is slated to produce 1,000 tons of packing paper per day without cutting down a tree and instead, use 100% recycled fiber like cardboard boxes and existing waste paper.
Meanwhile, Salt Lake City officials point out that Waste Management is expected to have a material recovery facility processor up and running next year that will help improve material sorting and increase recycling production in Utah.
“I think there’s enough investment in sustainability in the long haul and enough people who are true believers, so to speak, that it will happen and it is happening right now,” Roberts said.
An increase in recycling plants in need of trash across the U.S. could mean the ability to recycle more items, Loader added.
“What we’re hearing at national conferences is: give us some time, the American market is coming back,” he said. “There will be more products, there will be more recycling areas that material can be used and they’re saying, ‘Give us a couple of years and the American market will catch up,’ and then we’ll be able to recycle more materials. But right now, there are very few materials we can recycle in our area.”