TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Tell the truth. Do you ever put things that shouldn’t be recycled in your recycle bin?
It's actually a huge problem in Tucson.
I rode along with Luis Barragan, who has been driving his routes and picking up recyclables all around the city of Tucson for 13 years.
He says the situation is getting worse. In some cases, he can see from the street that a bin is full of garbage.
"This container here is 100 percent contaminated. Picture frames, suitcases, purses...I do find it disrespectful,” said Barragan has he pointed to a particular bin.
Sometimes even bins that look like they're full of recyclables have garbage inside them. Tucson trucks have a video camera that records bins as they're going into the truck - and that's how drivers like Luis find some violators.
The city of Tucson actually measures just how much of the recycling is contaminated. A recent audit showed that number is 22 percent, that’s called the rate of contamination.
Carlos De La Torre is the director of environmental services for the city. He explained that a high rate of contamination ends up being expensive. “We essentially pay to process that garbage twice,” he said.
The reason is that unrecycable material needs to be taken to a regular landfill, and the city needs to pay for that.
The extra cost for bad recyclables is now a big deal for the city and taxpayers, because the recycling program as a whole is suddenly losing money.
The change is dramatic. I looked through the numbers the city puts out every month and every year.
For years, revenue came in every month. In total, it averaged between $1 and $1.5 million dollars. That revenue was more than enough to cover the cost of the bad recycling.
But in March - the market tanked. Now De La torre estimates the losses will be between $500,000 and $1 million per year.
The reason for the switch is a decision made 7,100 miles away, in China. De la Torre says "It's totally, a clear, direct impact."
When we put our recycling in our bins, we have no idea that the Chinese eventually buy most of that material.
In March of this year, China changed its policy, and put in a rule that they won’t accept any recycling that’s contaminated by more than .5 percent. Remember, the contamination rate in Tucson is 22 percent.
It is now too expensive for the city to try to purify its recycling.
So now the city is trying to figure out how to stem the flow of red ink.
First - there's a chance we'll all have to pay more.
The city will discuss it next year - and could put a mandatory recycling surcharge that would cost each household somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 a year.
Second - some pilot programs are coming to certain neighborhoods to pick up recyclables twice a month rather than every week.
And finally - there's the issue of enforcement. Often when Luis sees a few non-recyclable things in a bin, he'll simply take that stuff out and put it on the side. And then put a blue tag reminder of what's supposed to be in the can.
But there’s a next step. He can refuse to pick up the can and call dispatchers to tell them the location of the violator. The city will send a letter to the homeowner explaining the situation.
If the same homeowner violates the recycling rules three times, he or she will lose the bin, have to pay a small fine, and then have to pay for another garbage bin.
I spoke with De la Torre, and asked, "do you think it might take actually punishing a few people to get everyone to say - ok - this is how we need to do things from now on.?"
"Unfortunately I think it will take that."
De la Torre and his team are trying to get out in public, holding question and answer sessions - letting Tucsonans know about the new realities of the program.
He told me the city also admits it is difficult for many people to know what to put into the bins, even if they have the best intentions. De la Tore said, “We as an industry have really made recycling very complicated. In terms of all the things that need to be recycled. How they need to be recycled. Does the container need to be empty. crushed not crushed, cap on. cap off.”
So now they want to focus on these things:
- aluminum cans
- plastic bottles
- cardboard and paper
- metal cans
The city hopes to bring the contamination rate eventually down to 10 percent, which would save money. They also hope the recycling market eventually goes back up.