Why the Air in Metro Phoenix is Fresher These Days

PHOENIX – The Phoenix area is famous for its warm spring days and wealth of outdoor activities, but it’s also known for something less flattering: some of the worst air quality in the country.

The American Lung Association ranked the Phoenix-Mesa area as the seventh worst for ozone pollution, behind Los Angeles, San Diego and other California cities.

Evidence of that ranking is the brown cloud that often hovers over metro Phoenix, but because of a looming cloud of a different sort – COVID-19 – many residents are staying home and out of their vehicles.

“We’re seeing less of the emissions that come out of the back of cars,” said Nancy Selover, the state climatologist. “So the brown cloud, the brown cloud is very much reduced in the Phoenix area.”

In just one week’s time, daily traffic delays plummeted approximately 32% across Maricopa County, which is home to more than 4 million people.

The time that commuters spent in traffic fell from nearly 56,000 hours a day during the second week of March to about 38,000 hours in the third week, according to a travel time delay index by the analytics company INRIX. This means that on average the time Maricopa County travelers spent in their cars to get to a destination decreased.

Data from Descartes Labs in New Mexico also suggests a downward trend in Maricopa County’s mobility through its m50 index. This index looks at the median distance people in a given area travel from where they started the day. This lack of mobility is something Selover has noticed as well.

“Because the traffic is less, we’re seeing less air pollution,” she said.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is collecting data on how COVID-19 has impacted emissions as people drive less. Gov. Doug Ducey on March 19 ordered gyms, bars and most restaurants in Maricopa County to close their doors to contain the spread of COVID-19, and on Monday extended the stay-at-home order to all 15 Arizona counties. That means people must remain at home unless they need to access essential services, such as the grocery store or the pharmacy.

“Vehicles driving on the roads are the biggest contributor to the man-made ozone in the Phoenix area and produce the majority of nitrous oxides (NOx) that are needed to create ozone,” Erin Jordan, ADEQ’s public information officer, said in an email.

Not all ozone is bad. Ozone higher in the stratosphere is produced naturally, and it’s necessary to protect against ultraviolet light. It’s the man-made ozone, produced by cars, manufacturing and power plants, that causes problems in the lowest level of the atmosphere.

Jordan said metro Phoenix was below average for moderate ozone days for the month of March, but she noted there could be many factors, including Phoenix’s recent wet weather, which can wash pollutants out of the air.

Other agencies, such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District in California, are detecting similar trends. Air quality has been good in the Los Angeles area, said Bradley Whitaker with the South Coast district, but weather factors into this, too.

“There’s been a lot of day to day changes in the weather and weather tends to be the most important factor that impacts air pollution concentration,” he said. “I would say, just generally, levels of emissions tend to drop during times of reduced economic activity, which we’re certainly in right now.”

And better air quality isn’t just being seen in Phoenix and Los Angeles but across the globe. Countries hardest hit by COVID-19, such as China and Italy, have seen significantly lower emissions. In China, emissions have gone down by more than 25% since the initial outbreak in late December in Wuhan, a major commercial hub.

That trend isn’t new. Emissions have historically dropped in times of crisis, for instance, wars and periods of economic uncertainty. During the Great Recession, economic activity slowed and emissions dropped, Whitaker said.

The brown cloud usually seen over metro Phoenix this time of year has been reduced in part because people are driving much less due to the coronavirus. In fact, March saw below average moderate ozone days, according to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. (Photo by Adam Fagen via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Although more time is needed to study how COVID-19 has impacted emissions, Selover said this decrease will be just a blip on the radar when it comes to the larger impact on climate in Arizona – at least for the immediate future.

“At this point in time, they’re not going to see those changes and emissions have any immediate impact on climate,” Selover said. “Temperature is not going to drop because of that or any of that kind of stuff.”

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With so many people staying at home, some might expect energy use to go up, but Arizona Public Service – the state’s largest supplier of electricity – reports that home energy use has seen a flat line of services. This means power use is more evenly spread throughout the day, leading to an increased opportunity for solar use during sunlit hours.

“We’re early right now in terms of the load forecast or what we are seeing. We are certainly seeing a decline in overall system load right now,” APS CEO Jeff Guldner said at the March 23 meeting of the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Regardless, some, such as Laura Dent, the executive director of the advocacy organization Chispa AZ, encourage people to think about the role emissions play in their daily lives. She hopes people will learn from this stay-at-home experience, adding that it shouldn’t take a global pandemic to achieve reduced emissions and other sustainability goals.

“We’re coming together for the safety of everyone,” Dent said. “It has been really inspiring to see the collective action across stakeholders in our community, individuals and families. We’d love to see that similar movement, build and grow in relation to this longer-term crisis related to climate change.”

Dent said recognizing the environment’s value is more important now than ever before. She sees that happening with people, who are staying at home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, now turning to the outdoors as a way to get out of their homes, and remain physically distant from others.

“In the very early stages of self-quarantine, millions of Americans are recognizing the importance of public space and parks,” Dent said. “I think all of us can recognize that there’s so many added values, not only to making sure that our society continues, but also that we have, you know, quality of life and well-balanced for our families moving into the future.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

U.S. Recycling Begins Infrastructure Development to Solve China Crisis

PHOENIX – U.S. recycling has nearly collapsed, prices have soared and the environmental waste problem has hit a crisis point, since China, the largest buyer of U.S. recycled products, stopped buying nearly 18 months ago. Now, recycling centers are looking to rebuild processing plants across the U.S. and that requires a policy change and millions in new funding.

A $2 trillion infrastructure bill did not make it through Congress this year. It died in April and along with it, a plan to fund big projects across the country like upgrades to highways and bridges, building out broadband service in rural areas, and modernizing U.S. recycling plants so that domestic centers can become the processor that China once was.

“We’re asking for $500 million over five years that would be appropriated to EPA that the EPA would then distribute to the states and the states would then provide it to eligible entities,” said David Biderman, Executive Director of SWANA, the Solid Waste Association of North America. Part of his job is to advocate for federal funding. Now that the infrastructure bill is dead, this funding ask is through something called the RECOVER Act.

“You know, local governments are primarily going to want money for educating their citizens on how to recycle right, on how not to put plastic bags in the bin. I don’t think local governments are going to go out and get millions and millions of dollars. The funding simply isn’t going to be available,” he said.

A forklift driver moves bales of sorted recycled material while a conveyor belt delivers unsorted material to the people who will sort it in Phoenix. (Photo by Annika Cline/KJZZ)

RECOVER stands for Realizing the Economic Opportunities and Value of Expanding Recycling, part of a long-term plan to end U.S. recycling’s dependence on China.

“I think that we’re going to see continued reduction in the amount of recycling that is exported from the United States,” Biderman said.

We already are. China dried up. Malaysia and the Philippines tapped out and are refusing to take more from the United States. Even Canada has sent material back.

“Recycling is just hard. There’s not, there’s no federal policy, there’s nothing on the books at the federal level to say how recycling should happen or where it should happen,” said Cole Rosengren, senior editor for the industry magazine Waste Dive. He says long term U.S. facilities face a fundamental shift in recycling operations, one that takes new funding and new policies.

Because waste companies have exported recycling for so long, the U.S. has no recycling infrastructure to do the job here — no set standard from one city to another on what a recycling process is, no regulations and nowhere near enough mills up and running to process the paper and plastic material collected every day.

“It’s worth remembering that recycling, up until seven or eight years ago, was a very expensive proposition. It came into strength in the early ’90s as a result of what was believed at the time to be a crisis in landfill space,” said James Thompson, president of Waste Business Journal.

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A lot of communities relied on the local private waste company to add on recycling services for trash pick-up. And recycling was subsidized, essentially, by the waste contracts, which became very profitable.

“So, you know, municipalities relied on the companies to create those markets and to bear those costs. And they did that by using the lucrative landfill contracts to help that,” said Thompson.

The U.S. recycling industry has been built on a series of individual contracts. Increasingly, those contracts are owned and operated by the largest waste companies, Waste Management and Republic Services.

“They’re doing just fine right now, for the most part, all of these large recycling companies, you know, waste and recycling companies. You know, they’re still taking a hit financially, but a lot of them are doing stellar at the moment. You know, landfills are quite profitable. Waste collection, you know, running trucks, is very profitable,” said Rosengren.

According to Waste Business Journal, U.S. waste and recycling was a $74 billion industry in 2018. Publicly traded companies, including Republic Services, make up 60 percent of that industry — a percentage that is expected to grow over the next decade. Rosengren says it is up to each city right now to find its own solution.

“City of Phoenix did utilize, for example, a no-interest loan from one of the big investment arms that’s out there for recycling money to upgrade their recycling facility. And so when cities do own or have a stake in their own sorting infrastructure. That’s probably where you’re going to see a lot of the money,” Rosengren said.

Twenty-one domestic mills across the U.S. are on pace to be up and running by 2021. So far, none are in process in Arizona.

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Amid Recycling Crisis, Chinese Company Reinvigorates U.S. Paper Industry

PHOENIX – The U.S.-China trade war has crushed the packaging products industry over the last several months. There is no relief in sight for business owners paying the bill. Last Friday, the Trump administration announced increased tariffs on several products, including packaging, to 25 percent. And Monday, China announced retaliatory 25 percent tariffs starting June 1, that also hit paper products.

For western cities like Phoenix, which have been wholly dependent on the U.S.-China relationship to fully process recycled paper, the trade war is not really about trade. It’s about business and a hard lesson in how U.S. and Chinese business owners must work together to keep one industry alive.

Brian Boland is a paper guy. He started in paper in 1995, and he’s seen things change dramatically.

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“People hear that you have got foreign investment coming into the United States, but one thing to remember again, to see growth, and to see investment in these facilities that have been here literally since the late 1800s, it creates jobs. It’s really, really cool. It’s really powerful stuff. And regardless of who owns the thing, that investment is a good thing.”

Brian Boland is vice-president of government affairs and corporate initiatives at ND Paper. Boland started in paper in 1995 in Michigan, just out of school. He’s at ND’s Ohio office. He says his plant sounds just like any other U.S. plant.

Boland’s mill had been shut down for decades, now bought and renovated by ND Paper, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Nine Dragons Paper Holdings, the largest paperboard company in China and one of the largest in the world, with more than 15,000 employees worldwide, including those like him, in its newly developed U.S. operations.

ND Paper has been quietly buying up closed down U.S. paper mills, starting with those previously owned by Catalyst paper, the Canadian company that still owns the shuttered mill in Snowflake.

With an ongoing trade war with China, these buy-ups and buy-outs are making industry insiders nervous, understandably. But, businesses owners say the industry needs to be saved by its operators.

“When I say the business model is broken in the U.S., it is broken,” said Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services, the second-largest waste company in the U.S., based out of Phoenix.

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“Eighteen months ago, cardboard was trading for around $150 a ton. Mixed paper and other paper products were trading for around $100 a ton. Cardboard today is trading for about $50 a ton, and those other paper grades are trading for around zero.”

Seventy-five percent of Republic Services’ business is dependent on paper. Keller says a lot has changed in the last year.

“I would say this, relative to recycling. If the material that’s being recovered and aggregated and ultimately marketed isn’t going back into a manufacturing process, isn’t getting reintroduced as some other product, then it is not recycling,” he said.

Prices in the U.S for recycled cardboard are at a decade low since China stopped buying the U.S. product. In January 2018, China established its National Sword policy, an effort to clean up its own environment and reduce pollution. That included drastically changing its import policy on recycled paper, in addition to tariffs on paper products. The global recycling business went into a tailspin, hitting recycled paper particularly hard.

“Those products are not selling at the price they used to and in some cases, people are paying to move their paper. It’s affecting municipalities, a lot of operations in terms of the revenues they are accustomed to receiving from selling recycling are not there anymore and so those shortfalls, for example, in Phoenix, those shortfalls in budget are are things we have to make up,” said Joe Giudice, assistant public works director for the city of Phoenix.

China consumes approximately one-quarter of all global paper products. About a quarter of their consumption has been imported, since China does not have the natural resources to keep up with its population. In 2017, China imported 26 million metric tons of scrap paper. In 2018, that dropped to 15 million metric tons — 2019 is on pace to drop even more.

Giudice said the solution to the trade problem is not trade negotiations, but with U.S. mills which need to produce cleaner products across the U.S. The mills being bought and renovated by Chinese-owned ND Paper already do, since they produce paper pulp, a finished product that is contaminant free and can be exported to China as is, even with an added tariff.

“So essentially, they are making their new cardboard boxes or products here in the United States and then shipping them back to China to put the toys and other products that they are manufacturing that are then going to get back in the box and go back to the United States or wherever else people are buying them from, so it’s this very unique international trade situation going on there,” Giudice said.

High Costs Could Force Tucson to Scrap Collection of Some Recyclables

TUCSON – Citing sharply escalating financial losses in the city’s recycling program, Tucson officials said this week the city might have to stop taking glass bottles and newspapers until markets for those items recover.

China was the leading buyer of U.S. recyclables for more than 25 years. But 18 months ago, the country, citing environmental concerns, banned certain imports and lowered the rate of acceptable contamination to 0.05 percent from 3 to 5 percent.

With no buyer for these materials, Tucson officials said they expect the recycling program to lose $3.3 million in fiscal year 2018-19. That’s six times what the city’s Environmental Services Department predicted last summer.

Proposals to save the recycling program include increasing monthly recycling fees for homeowners from 45 cents to 75 cents and scaling down collections from weekly to twice monthly. The city intends to continue accepting metal cans, clean cardboard and plastic bottles and jugs because the market for those items remains good.

In cities across the U.S., including Phoenix and Flagstaff, many recyclables already are going to landfills.

China ups ante in trade war, imposes tariff that could doom U.S. paper recycling

PHOENIX – Most of the headlines from the trade war between China and the United States have focused on tariffs on aluminum and steel, but China also has placed a levy on recycled paper pulp. While not as well known, the tariff could bankrupt an already taxed recycling industry in the United States.

China’s latest round of retaliatory tariffs against the U.S., announced in August, includes something called “recovered fiber materials,” basically, the recycled paper, newspaper and cardboard that we put in the recycle bin. Trucks collect paper, bundle it at local centers and sell it as bales, mostly to China, to be incorporated into new products. It’s the cycle of recycling. And now there’s a potential tariff on those exports.

“This is a huge impact on the paper business in the United States,” said Baizhu Chen, a business professor at the University of Southern California. “By taking a unilateral position against other countries, imposing a tariff against other countries, the U.S. is causing huge damage on the global trading system.”

The tariff announcement hits a recycling industry already weakened by China’s announcement in January that it no longer would import most plastics and certain other recycled goods from the United States.

“Certainly, the impact has been considerable to us in the first quarter,” said Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability for Republic Services. “So, increased cost, decreased revenue, that doesn’t make for a winning equation in today’s marketplace.”

Since China’s import ban on most U.S. recycled products, municipal recycling programs have spent much of 2018 in crisis mode. And some U.S. cities can’t make it work. Phoenix, though, has had an edge, according to Rick Peters, deputy solid waste director for the city.

Phoenix Public Works Solid Waste Superintendent Chad Hardy oversees production at the 27th Avenue Transfer Station. Phoenix continues to export recycled paper to China. (File photo by Miles Metke/Cronkite News)

“Part of it is the dry climate from Phoenix really makes the materials being dry makes them easier to separate,” he said.

Phoenix has continued to export recycled paper to China during 2018, which has been key to keeping the program profitable. But that all changes with the tariff.

Chen says a tariff is negatively impacting both American and Chinese businesses.

“This will have a big impact in China on the paper industry. They are short of feedstock,” he said. “And all the businesses are thinking about where to get that feedstock and paper if they are short of paper pulp. And also have an impact on the recycling business in the United States.”

China is the top importer of U.S. recycled paper. China imported 2.73 million tons of U.S. cardboard during the first half of 2018 and 1.4 million tons of all other U.S.-sourced recovered fiber. And without China as the buyer of American recycled paper, the future of U.S. recycling is in doubt.

“China’s economy has been booming for so long,” Peters said, “that they developed a huge appetite for our recycled materials so they could turn it into new products and then ship them overseas to us in their shipping containers. And then the next thing you know, it was like 40 percent of U.S. recyclable paper was going to China. And this continued for many, many years.”

Trade between the two countries is not even. Last year, China’s exports of goods and services to the United States totaled about $500 billion, which dwarfs China’s imports from the U.S., which totaled about $150 billion.

“In time, it’s going to take time, probably maybe several years, if China does not go back to buying, it’s going to take several years for demand and supply to get matched back up again to where the price of mixed paper and newspaper goes back up,” Peters said.

Some businesses are not waiting for Beijing and Washington, D.C., to resolve the dispute. China’s largest paper manufacturer has begun buying up U.S. paper mills, which allows it to not only sell directly within the U.S. but also ship paper remanufactured in the U.S. back to China without paying a tariff.

Chen said Nine Dragons probably is the largest paper company in China. It has been importing waste paper from the United States and was considering investing in the United States “to extract pulp from the papers and then sell the pulp into China, which is not in the ban, but now there’s a tariff.”

In May, Nine Dragons bought two pulp and paper mills in Maine and Wisconsin from Catalyst Paper Holdings, a Canadian company that now owns a closed paper mill in Snowflake in northern Arizona. In August, China’s third-largest recycled paper producer signed a deal to acquire a mill in Kentucky.

Both Catalyst and Nine Dragons declined comment on this report.

“So the strategy is coming to invest in the United States, instead of exporting the waste paper directly … they buy the paper mill to process the waste paper and to turn it into the paper pulp. So, theoretically, these are much cleaner, these are not classified as recycled products.”

Arguably, as Chen says, if the new product is not classified as recycled paper, it would avoid a potential tariff.

“So now, instead of processing that in China, and Nine Dragons, for example, those companies, they process the waste paper in the United States,” he said.

And it will be manufactured in a paper mill now owned by a Chinese company, not a U.S one, leaving questions about the future of the U.S. recycling business.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Cities stop recycling some plastics, thanks to China

FLAGSTAFF – Americans recycle about 66 million tons of material each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. About one-third of it is sent to China, where for three decades the materials have been used to create new products.

But all that is changing, as China is taking drastic measures to clean up its own heavily polluted environment.

China’s new policies have led cities across the U.S. to adjust what they will accept in their recycling bins – and it means more materials will end up in landfills. In Flagstaff, for example, a new recycling ban went recently went into effect, prohibiting most types of rigid plastic in curbside bins.

“I think that overall, it’s probably a good thing,” said Tom Dietrich, a shopper at a recent farmers market. “If our previous policy was reliant on China being willing to trash their environment to take our stuff, and now they’re pushing back against it in order to make their place better, then good.”

Across the U.S., recycling gets picked up and sorted at a municipal facility. The finished bales of plastics and paper are sold to processors. China has processed roughly half of the world’s plastic and paper recyclables for since the 1980s.

But last summer, Beijing announced new standards on how much trash can be in the recyclable trash it imports. It’s based on the contamination rate, which measures how much non-recyclable material can be in paper and plastic bales. The new policy limits that to almost zero, at 0.5 percent.

Stacy Hettmansperger, a recycling plant manager in Phoenix, points to a conveyor belt carrying paper products ready for bundling.

“You can see there’s pieces of plastic,” she said. “It’s not a perfect system. So you can kind of get a sense of why contamination is a challenge. Oh, see the plastic bags?”

And while American recycling plants adjust to sorting and shipping a cleaner product, China has added to its list of restricted materials. China’s original import ban, filed with the World Trade Organization in July 2017, covered 24 materials. In April, China added 32 products to the list.

“And what China is saying is, ‘We no longer want to be the recipient of all this material,’ partially because the material isn’t always clean,” said David Biderman, executive director and CEO of Solid Waste Association of North America. “There’s a substantial amount of contamination, or garbage, mixed in with the recyclables. But also because, we believe, China has a newfound interest in protecting the environment – its own environment.”

Joe Giudice, assistant public works director for Phoenix, said his city has felt the effects of the changes.

“The impact for us has been that our plant’s operators need to be a lot pickier about the quality of the materials that they are making for sale,” he said. “And in doing so, less material is making it into the sold market than it used to.”

Western cities have been hit especially hard as they use their seaports to send their materials for processing almost exclusively in China.

Blaine County, Idaho, cut its paper recycling program in May. Cities in Colorado, Nevada and Alaska also have shrunk their recycling programs, or in some cases, closed down plants because they can’t meet China’s new standard.

“You know, the short-term reactions are hard to accept in the market where we want to recycle,” Giudice said. “We all want to recycle materials, and it’s hard to hear that plants are having to close down.”

For Giudice and the Phoenix recycling facilities, the solution is to build processors nearby instead of shipping waste plastic and paper to China.

“Like, for example, in Snowflake, Arizona, there was a mill that would buy recycled paper and remanufacture paper, but that mill closed down,” he said. “So the markets in China developed and continued to consume those products and paid the best prices. And over the course of 20 or 30 years, essentially, that’s how the market developed.”

Giudice is in the process of issuing a request for proposal to get a manufacturer to process recyclables in Phoenix. But that takes time.

In the meantime, in Phoenix, Flagstaff and a growing number of U.S. cities, recyclables are going to a landfill.

PLAY OUR RECYCLING GAME:

To play, tap on the red button below.

How to Play:

Certain countries across the globe specialize in recycling certain items. Our goal is to successfully sort mass quantities of recyclables so we can transport them to their specialized country. Seems nice, right? There is a catch – once these countries receive capacity of recyclables, they have the right to turn away more.

The player must sort and recycle as many items as they can by placing them into their designated bins all within the allotted time frame. For each misplaced item as well as items left over the end of the level, these items will be sent to the landfill. As the player advances through the levels, different situations may occur to challenge the sorting process. Try to recycle at least 70% of the items to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

Our recycling game was developed by Audrey Kruse and Desiree Cunningham who are students at the Cronkite School’s New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab. Students in the lab design and develop news games that tell complex stories in innovative ways, helping news organizations, including Cronkite News at Arizona PBS, engage new audiences.