San Luis Obispo County waste managers are planning to roll out an educational campaign on proper recycling as restrictions on the global recycling market threaten the U.S. industry.
Contamination is the biggest issue for recycling processors, who often sort through bottles full of liquid, dangerous sharp needles and even weapons.
John Ryan, the facility manager at Cold Canyon Processing Facility in SLO, said his employees recently found a pair of grenades in a recycling bin.
"It’s either consumer apathy or maybe just wishful thinking," Ryan said.
The issue of contamination is what led China to narrow its purchases, excluding virtually all American markets through a campaign called National Sword.
China previously accepted a wide range of recyclable products with higher levels of contamination, which were often times burned as fuel. But the new move, which took effect in January, restricts Chinese markets from taking in items with more than one half of one percent of contamination.
"Basically that they want to reduce their image as a garbage dump, so they’ve become much more restrictive on what they will accept and they’re eliminating a lot of the materials they used to take in," said SLO Co. Integrated Waste Management Authority Manager Bill Worrell.
In SLO County, the contamination in recyclables vastly exceed that new standard.
"We’ve seen the contamination rate increase in this county from about 10 percent to now over 20 percent," Worrell said.
For a business like Cold Canyon Processing, which processes 170 tons each day, that means a lot of sifting and sorting to make sure they have a product of value.
Ryan’s business, though, is not scrambling to adjust. He said Cold Canyon Processing has always used domestic and non-Chinese markets and has maintained a high standard. But he does see the impact financially, as his competitors turn to his buyers.
"It’s a supply-and-demand situation: the six million tons that China is no longer accepting has to go to other countries and they are inundated," said Ryan. "So it does affect the price, (our pay is) substantially reduced from what we used to get."
Worrell said the county, with Ryan’s help, is working to create new educational pamphlets and stickers for recycling bins to help people understand what can and cannot be recycled.