PHOENIX — The City Council voted Tuesday to increase the solid waste residential rate by $6.40 a month, which is to be phased in over the next two years.
The measure comes two years after China made significant cuts to how much recycled plastic, fiber and other waste it would accept, costing Phoenix multimillion dollar profits from solid waste.
The council’s 7-2 vote maintained the city’s current recycling and composting services by increasing the residential rate to $33.20. It was the first rate hike of its kind since 2009. Councilmen Sal DiCiccio and Jim Waring voted no.
“This vote is an investment in our city’s future and an endowment toward sustainability for generations of Phoenicians to come,” Mayor Kate Gallego said in an email later. “It was time for Phoenix to re-examine the future of our trash collection services.”
The decision came after the council weighed four options regarding the future of Phoenix’s waste services. The other options proposed changing curbside recycling collections to every other week, terminating operations at the Phoenix composting facility for all customers, or suspending the recycling and compost programs.
Before the vote, representatives from the Phoenix Public Works Department made a presentation in support of the $6.40 a month rate hike, which they said the majority of residents wanted.
They said the department held 51 community meetings over the past three months to get an understanding on where residents stood on the proposed possible increases.
“Our recommendation was the recommendation that our community told us was most important to them, ” said Joe Giudice, assistant director of public works. “What we thought was most important to the community was to maintain the services we are currently providing and to continue the city’s commitment toward sustainability and how (Phoenix) manages its waste.”
According to the online surveys conducted by the Public Works Department, 58% of respondents prefered to keep all services, despite the rate increase.
“If (Public Works drivers) don’t get the increase over the next two years … we’re going to lose 90 drivers,” Phoenix Public Works driver Robert Reidenbach said ahead of the vote. “We’re trying to keep 100 people from having to tell their families they don’t have a job.”
Before 2018, Phoenix would send 60% to 70% of its recycled waste to China in exchange for an annual payout. In 2017, the city made $13 million from recycled waste.
But since January 2018, China has significantly reduced the amount of waste it accepts because too much of it was contaminated with food and other nonrecyclable materials, dropping Phoenix’s total profit on recycled waste to $3 million in 2019.
Phoenix isn’t the only city that’s had to reevaluate recycling in the wake of China’s decision to scale back on solid waste purchases. Mesa reduced what it recycles because of the rising costs, Surprise suspended its program last August because of contamination and Tucson has reduced its recycling efforts.
Giudice said the rate increase “opens up a lot of opportunities for us to continue to be that city that people really want to continue to move to as they love living, working and playing in Phoenix.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
LOS ANGELES – I’m that grocery shopper who pulls up to the EV charging spot, walks in with my reusable bags for the bulk section and inevitably causes confusion when I ask the butcher to put my ground turkey directly into my glass container.
Every couple weeks, I drive all my rotting banana peels and broccoli stems to a community garden three miles from my apartment, where they’re composted.
It takes a week for my husband and I to fill up our two-gallon trash can and our eight-gallon recycling bin.
But despite putting so much effort into not creating waste, into being the best recycler I could be— there was one thing that I couldn’t seem to stop. Junk mail.
The two-for-one pizza deals, supermarket discounts and persistent credit card offers were getting out of hand. Several days a week, I’d find them crammed into my tiny apartment mailbox—which nearly exploded everytime I opened it.
The Los Angeles Department of Public Works estimates that about 100 million trees are cut down annually to make direct marketing advertisements and Americans spend an average eight months of their lives sifting through it.
And sure, recycling is great, but that paper can only get reused 5 to 7 times before it’s not useful anymore.
My junk mail was wasting my time, the trees and somebody else’s money. I decided to embark on a quest, to go where no man had gone before— to end my junk mail for good.
So I started with some research.
Why Direct Mail Marketing Still Exists
In the digital age, paper mail feels old-fashioned. With all the robo-calls, spam emails and pop-ups, I figured no one even looks at their junk mail – but I was wrong.
Mark Pitts of the American Forest and Paper Association is the man in charge of any paper used for printing or writing across the United States.
He told me that companies still use paper because it keeps customers engaged: “They call it junk mail but the reality is, people read it.”
Even in the digital age, Pitts said that paper provides the highest return on investment. And, despite the logical assumption that younger people are more averse to physical spam, it turns out that millennials engage with junk mail just as much as baby boomers.
“The millennial generation actually had better recall on print advertising,” she said, “Because their attention span is very short in the digital space.”
As for how that mail ends up in any particular mailbox, Senny Boone from the Association of National Advertisers said people could be subscribers, recent purchasers, or … they could just live in the right zip code.
“It might be that there’s a very nearby Pizza Hut in your area, so they want everyone in the area to know about it because it’s local advertising,” she said.
After speaking with the experts, it was clear that junk mail wouldn’t stop itself….but could one person stop the junk mail?
Turns out it was about as complicated as it sounds.
I decided to tackle the problem in steps, by category of junk mail, starting with the worst kind.
Step 1: Credit Card Offers
Ever since I started making payments on my first credit card in college, the credit offers kept coming. And coming.
That’s because the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) lets consumer credit report companies (think TransUnion, Equifax, Experian) put names like mine on lists that creditors use to determine who they want to see their insurance and credit offers.
Enter OptOutPrescreen: the FCRA’s option to stop getting (or sign up for) those offers. You can opt out for five years by filling out a form online, or do it permanently by mailing that form to their opt-out department in Atlanta. (Editors note: Submitting your Social Security Number is optional. The opt-out request goes through with just your name and address.)
It takes five days for the consumer credit report companies to remove your name from those lists, but it might take longer for the offers to stop coming through. That’s because companies might have created offers for you that just haven’t been sent out yet.
Filling out the form probably took about 90 seconds.
Step 2: Catalogs
These are the Postmates and Walgreens deals that arrive at your house via flyers, or actual catalogs, for the online-shopping averse.
The hard way to get rid of this kind of junk mail means contacting each company individually.
I took the easy way and signed up for DMAchoice, which is the closest thing to a one-stop junkmail stopper the internet has to offer. There, I took my name off catalog and magazine lists, and unsubscribed from hundreds of other companies’ offers.
All that convenience only cost me a $2 processing fee. And the website says I’ll stay off the mailing lists for 10 years.
Association of National Advertisers now owns the DMAchoice service. Boone said the service was born after the industry decided in the 1970s that consumers should be able to reduce unwanted mail.
“Certainly from the consumer’s perspective they don’t want to get unwanted mail that’s not relevant to them,” he said. “For the business side, they don’t want to send mail to people that don’t want it because there’s a cost there.”
Boone said once consumers register, their name is added to a suppression file that businesses can access when they’re getting ready for their next campaign.
Unsubscribing from the suppression file took two minutes to do. But I haven’t seen results here yet – DMA says it could take as many as 90 days to stop receiving those offers.
Step 3: Bills, Bills, Bills
For years now I’ve gotten credit card statements and utility bills in the mail. This might not count as junk mail, but it was still going into my recycling bin unopened, because I found it easier to pay online.
It turns out that all of the companies that bill me have an option to go paperless. A 10-minute search through account settings and FAQ pages provided the instant gratification I was looking for.
After my next billing cycle, I shouldn’t get any more of these. Victory!
Step 4: Return to Sender(s)
Now we start entering the more time-consuming battle of the junk mail war.
But it’s worth the effort— this has definitely been the most satisfying part of cleaning up my mailbox.
I found out that you can throw envelopes right back into the mailbox, and write “Refused, return to sender” on them, if those envelopes say one of the following phrases:
Return service requested
Forwarding service requested
Address service requested
Change service requested
You can also write “return to sender” or “not at this address” for any mail addressed to someone else (and if you live in an apartment like I do, that makes up a significant chunk of junk mail).
Step 5: Tying Up Loose Ends
There are still companies that have used other resources to get my address. I’ve signed up for more than one mailing list in my life to get 15% off my first order. I still get alumni magazines, and my alma mater likes to remind me that it’s always willing to take more donations before the fiscal year ends.
But I found a (possible) solution. A simple google search led me to PaperKarma, a free phone app that claims to make unsubscribing easy. The user takes a photo of the unwanted mail, types in their name and address and hits the unsubscribe button. Then the app gets it done in the next business day.
The app will unsubscribe from four services for free. After that I’d have to pay $2 a month or $20 per year for unlimited unsubscribe requests, which I’m not willing to do – yet.
PaperKarma’s app also says it still takes one to three mail cycles before the unsubscribes start working, so I’m still waiting to see results.
So Was It Worth It?
The short answer is… maybe?
A week later, the credit card offers have definitely slowed down and the paperless bills are soon to be history.
As for the catalogs and donation requests, the jury’s still out. I hear some companies are more challenging to break up with than others.
So if you really want to know if my attempt was a success, ask me in two months.
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.
LOS ANGELES – First, California taxed plastic bags. Then it curbed plastic straws. Now a group of legislators wants to completely phase out single-use plastics.
“It’s time to get serious about this,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego), who is spearheading legislation targeting the use of plastics along with Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica).
If passed, those bills would require the state to reduce or recycle 75 percent of single-use plastic packaging and products by 2030. In addition, manufacturers would be required to ensure that all packaging sold or distributed in California is recyclable or compostable by 2030.
Why now? Gonzalez Fletcher cited the mounting impacts of plastic waste on environmental and human health, and the loss of Asian markets for recycled plastic material.
“We have a crisis coming and we know it,” she said.
Allen also noted mounting public health concerns as studies find tiny plastic particles, called microplastics, in food, soil and drinking water.
By the Numbers
Scientists estimate that 19 billion pounds of plastic waste end up in the ocean each year, severely impacting sea and bird life. If plastic production and disposal continue at the current rate, by 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish, according to the World Economic Forum.
Historically at least one-third of California’s recyclable material was exported to overseas markets, mostly to China, according to the state’s recycling authority, CalRecycle. But China stopped accepting most material in 2017, leaving municipalities scrambling to deal with mounting waste.
Less than 15 percent of single-use plastic is recycled in California, according to Californians Against Waste. The non-profit advocacy group, which helped to craft the new legislation, notes that the value of scrap plastic is less than the cost of recycling it.
“The sad truth is,” Sen. Allen said, “that so much of what we throw into (recycling) bins is not getting recycled.”
While the proposed legislation would require CalRecycle to set goals and guidelines for eliminating single-use plastic, many of the details have yet to be worked out.
Getting it Done
One inspiration? Rules put in place last year by the European Union. There, plastic-based products with readily-available alternatives, including cotton swabs, straws and drink stirrers, will be phased out completely. The EU policy also sets high goals for recycling items like plastic bottles.
Under pressure from consumers and environmental groups, some manufacturers and companies, including Trader Joe’s, are setting their own goals for phasing out avoidable plastic. Recently, a group of major companies announced a pilot project that will allow consumers to purchase items like shampoo, orange juice and ice cream online and then return the packaging to be refilled.
Representatives of plastics industry groups were cautiously supportive of the goals of the proposed California legislation, but said they were awaiting the details. Tim Shestek, senior director for state affairs at the American Chemistry Council, said in an email that the proposal’s goal of phasing out plastic waste “is consistent with the goals we set last year that 100% of plastics packaging is re-used, recycled or recovered by 2040 and that 100% of plastics packaging is recyclable or recoverable by 2030.”
Scott DeFife, vice-president of government affairs for the Plastic Industries Association also said his group shares the goal of increased plastic recycling and recovery. But he said part of the reason for current, low recycling rates lies with the waste management system and consumers’ access to recycling.
“Obviously, the material ending up in the environment is the worst case scenario and none of us want to see that,” DeFife said. “As an industry we’re working on … how we can recover the material better, how it can be recycled better, but also end markets for the use of recycled material.”
The Allen-Gonzalez plastic waste legislation is supported by numerous environmental groups, including the L.A.-based 5 Gyres Institute, Surfrider Foundation and Californians Against Waste.
Support from Environmentalists
Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, applauded the bill for its ambitious goals. He said consumers shouldn’t be held responsible for packaging waste.
“The thrust of this legislation is to make the producers responsible for creating a circular economy when it comes to plastic packaging,” he said. He noted that glass, aluminum and paper have much higher recycling rates, overall, than plastic. “If [plastic] is going to continue to exist, it’s going to have to demonstrate the kind of closed loop recycling capabilities as other materials that we generate.”
PICACHO, Ariz. – About 80 million tons of asphalt are recycled every year throughout the U.S., but the Arizona Department of Transportation is using old pavement from Interstate 10 to build new eastbound lanes near this unincorporated community. In the process, an ADOT spokesman says the department is saving money and time, and decreasing its environmental impact.
Usually during construction, ADOT moves materials over a mile away from the construction site, but on this project, material from a torn-up 4-mile stretch of highway from Eloy to Picacho was moved only 200 yards offsite. ADOT uses pointed cylinders and other tools to break up the old asphalt, concrete and dirt, then mixes it together for use as a foundation for the new lanes.
Spokesman Tom Herrmann said ADOT is using the old material for the new eastbound lanes “to create a base so that we can pave on there. We’re saving time. We’re saving money, and we’re not adding any materials to any landfills. It’s been very important for us to preserve the beauty that is Arizona.”
The department also is recycling the 30,000 feet of guard rails from the Picacho site and reusing the rails that are in good condition on other projects around the state.
This stretch of Interstate 10 was built in the mid-1960s.
“This is really an unusual case,” Hermann said. “We’re out here in the middle of the desert in central Arizona. We have an opportunity here to do something special.”
Kamil Kaloush, a professor at Arizona State’s School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, said recycled materials can be effective.
“If it is designed correctly and added at the proper percentage, it will be just as good as the version material or the new construction,” Kaloush said.
Recycling materials onsite not only saves money and time, it helps the environment, he said.
“Saving in money, saving in energy, cost, fuel and, of course, the impact on the environment, the CO₂ emissions, the global warming and climate change and everything else,” Kaloush said.
ADOT replaced the westbound lanes last year. Construction on the eastbound lanes is expected to wrap up in the fall.
LOS ANGELES – Mayor Eric Garcetti has a new goal for Los Angeles: recycling 100 percent of our wastewater, but it’ll take 16 years and $2 billion to do it.
How do sanitation officials plan to make that happen? The biggest piece of the puzzle involves upgrading the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant, the largest such facility in the western United States.
Located near LAX and Dockweiler Beach, the plant is L.A.’s oldest and largest wastewater treatment facility (roughly the size of Disneyland). It processes 260 million gallons of wastewater every day, recycling roughly a quarter of that.
BIG NEWS: Today I’m announcing that @LACity will recycle 100% of its wastewater by 2035 – a major step to expand water conservation and reduce reliance on imported water. pic.twitter.com/OEQpyefStI
Garcetti said that right now the roughly 75% of the water from the Hyperion plant that isn’t drinkable just ends up back in the ocean but this plan would change that.
“We will sell it to neighboring cities, including El Segundo and West Hollywood and Santa Monica and use it for the city of L.A…. It gives us everyday almost a quarter billion gallons that we can use for landscaping or putting back into the aquifer for drinking water,” he said.
Boosting the recycle rate from 25 percent to 100 percent won’t come cheap. The city’s Bureau of Sanitation (BOS) estimates the improvements at the Hyperion plant will cost about $2 billion to reach the mayor’s goal by 2035.
“Los Angeles is confident in its ability to finance this project largely through federal and state funding, and plans to supplement these funds through city cash or bond money,” mayor’s office officials said in a statement.
Garcetti says he thinks the state could supply all of the money to pay for the project, especially with the savings from the one-tunnel solution.
“We’re not raising anybody’s taxes to do all of this because we can sell the water, it’ll pay for itself. But to finance it up front and to build out the infrastructure of the new pipes that will take water out of this plant and back into the system, we hope that the state will step up,” he said.
It’s also in the state’s interest to support the project because it will benefit all of California, he said.
According to the mayor’s office, the initial process at treatment plants puts it at “near-drinking water quality.” After that, the recycled water travels to one of L.A.’s groundwater treatment replenishment facilities, where it’s filtered into the basin over time, mixing with the existing groundwater.
Then, the water is extracted and treated again at that groundwater facility “before it reaches drinking water quality and enters the water distribution system.”
The Hyperion plant is one of L.A.’s four water treatment facilities. The other three – L.A. Glendale, Tillman and Terminal Island – are already at 100 percent recycled water capacity. City officials are confident they can do the same with Hyperion.
According to the mayor’s office, the projects at that plant will “create good-paying engineering, construction, operations, and maintenance jobs,” although no estimate of how many was immediately available.
One project BOS is developing at the Hyperion plant is a “1.5 MGD Advanced Water Purification Facility,” which officials said will supply recycled water for use at LAX facilities and to equipment at the plant itself by 2021.
PHOENIX – Environmentally speaking, it’s best to reuse your holiday lights for as long as possible, or to donate them.
But for the first time, Phoenix is accepting strings of lights for recycling. Residents can drop off lights at one of two transfer stations, starting the day after Christmas.
“This is the first year that we’ve done this program, so we’re really excited, and we’re hoping to get a lot of residents bring in lights to us to recycle,” said Lucas Mariacher, zero waste coordinator for the Phoenix Public Works Department.
Residents will need to bring along their city services bill when they drop off the lights.
Some hardware stores accept lights, but not all do, so consumers should call ahead before dropping off those burned-out lights.
A few light retailers, such as Holiday LEDs, will exchange in-store coupons for shipments of lights. But Shellie Gardner of Texas-based Christmas Light Source, which donates its recycling proceeds to Toys for Tots, said local is greener.
“See if there’s a metal recycler in your area that can take lights for recycling,” Gardner said. “And it could just be a matter of making a few phone calls. And then go make a donation to Toys for Tots in your town.”
Recyclers recover valuable copper and glass from the light strings.
In all cases, experts say to turn in only lights — no packaging, no wrapping and no boughs of holly.
GILBERT – From meat trays to mac-and-cheese cups, single-use plastics pack the grocery-store aisles and usually end up in landfills. Now, an Arizona company is on a mission to replace them with biodegradable and compostable products over the next five years.
“We had the vision that the whole world was going to demand alternatives to plastic,” said Troy Swope, founder and CEO of Footprint.
The trick is inventing a material that’s as convenient and useful as plastic.
Swope, who’s passionate about overcoming obstacles through innovation, and his business partners created Footprint in 2012. The company’s leaders used to work for Intel before putting their technology and innovation skills to work to start their own company.
They now produce packaging for big companies, including Walmart, Costco, Tyson Foods and Kraft.
The company does have competitors, such as Be Green Packaging in South Carolina, but most of these companies are focused on simple solutions to single-use plastics, such as takeout containers. Footprint is working on technology to tackle more difficult plastics, like frozen-food containers and meat trays.
They do this in their manufacturing facility in Gilbert, which recently relocated to a new industrial park. Much of the manufacturing space is empty, but the company, which currently employees 650 people, plans to expand over the next several years, and add 250 workers.
Stacked up along the walls of the production floor are bales of corrugated paper – cardboard – the first step in creating biodegradable products. The paper is ground up and mixed with various solutions, depending on the product, before going through heating machines that mold the material at 338 degrees.
The products are made from a slurry. Different coatings are added to the mixture to create barriers against moisture, oxygen and oil, which is needed for food products to maintain shelf life while in storage.
This year, Footprint began producing paper straws, and it plans to increase straw production by the end of the year. They’re working to find the perfect paper and adhesive combination to make a long-lasting straw.
“The most difficult part is the customers want biodegradability and compostability, yet they still want the product to behave like plastic,” said Yoke Chung, chief technology officer of Footprint.
The science behind the products is important, and so is the company’s environmental impact. It says carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by 40 to 60 percent depending on the type of plastic the Footprint materials are replacing. The company also says energy use drops as much as 50 percent.
“If you start looking at plastic’s true cost,” Swope said, “like the cost to haul it away and store it for 100 and some years, then we’re way lower cost than plastic.”
Mick Dalrymple, director of university sustainability initiatives at Arizona State University, recently toured Footprint. The company has a big, but not impossible, goal, he said.
“It’s a matter of how fast can they scale up. How can they fend off any competitors, and then also things like how can they avoid manufacturers that want to make exclusives with them,” Dalrymple said.
In five years, Footprint has invented more than 400 items, patenting at least three dozen of those items, including containers for produce.
“We want you to walk into a grocery store today, and you see all the plastic, and in five years, you’re going to walk into that grocery store and go, we changed this whole store – the bakery, the meat trays, the yogurt containers, right, the coffee lid on the way out – we’re going to transform that grocery store and it’s going to happen fast,” Swope said.
Footprint plans to increase production in the United States and expand into Mexico and Europe over the next few years.