To salvage recycling, Phoenix increases solid waste residential rate by 24%

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.

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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.”

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

Poop on Public Lands Prompts Feds to Clamp Down on Dispersed Camping

MOAB, Utah — About 40 miles north from the tourist hordes in town and set against a backdrop of tan clay and red mesas, the vista looked primed for a nature magazine cover shoot: early afternoon, the desert bloom in full force, awash with purple and yellow flowers. Quiet.

But it wouldn’t stay that way for long. As the day wore on, the empty desert area known as Klondike Bluffs became crowded with retrofitted vans and mountain bike-toting Subarus, all hunting for the picture-perfect place to camp — for free — for the weekend.

James Gustine and his wife, Jamie, were relaxing in a pair of folding chairs as their children played atop a nearby mesa. They counted themselves lucky because they snagged a spot that morning before the crowds arrived.

“Camping in Moab is just brutal,” Gustine, of Durango, Colo., said. “Just getting a spot can be full-on competition. It didn’t used to be this way.”

A decade ago, the public lands surrounding the town of Moab were known as a quiet spring break destination for mountain bikers and climbers in the region — the kind of place where a visitor could roll in on a Saturday and not see many people.

But last year, more than 2.9 million people visited the public lands stretching from Moab to Bears Ears National Monument south of here. Across the region, low gas prices, a population rise in the West and a strong U.S. economy appear to be driving more people to visit outdoor meccas like Moab, Jackson Hole, and Fruita, Colo. This is causing problems for the federal government because many of those visitors practice dispersed camping.

Human feces doesn’t decompose as quickly in arid country as it does in wetter environments, such as forests. (Art by Renee Bright/KUER)

Dispersed camping is a long-held tradition of the American West — going out to remote places and putting down stakes. No toilets, no electrical hook-ups, and no running water. Gustine and his family love it.

“It’s free. We get away from the crowds. The dog can run around,” he said. “Just a little more space really.”

According to the Bureau of Land Management, more than 90% of the Moab field district is open to dispersed camping. But many of those spaces are in more remote, off-road locales where the terrain demands a good pair of hiking boots to arrive at a camping destination. That means the less remote areas — closer to popular hiking and biking trails — are becoming crowded. On the weekend the Gustines were camping, they were surrounded by black, live-in vans and trailer campers.

“It takes away from the experience,” Gustine said. “I don’t come out here to be around huge crowds. That’s not the reason I’m out here.”

Growing crowds aren’t the only issue causing headaches, though.

About a half-mile away from where the Gustines are camping, Lisa Bryant, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, was stooped over some dirty paper towels half-buried in the sand. She hoped they had simply escaped from someone’s picnic.

“But the way they are wadded up and stuffed into the dirt, I’m not going to pick it up,” she said.

Bryant believed those paper towels were used as toilet paper. Improperly buried waste has become a big problem as more dispersed campers come to public lands, especially in the desert.

Lisa Bryant, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, cleans up some improperly buried toilet tissue in a dispersed camping area near Moab, Utah. (Photo by Nate Hegyi/KUER)

Human feces doesn’t decompose as quickly in arid country as it does in wetter environments, such as forests. If cat holes are too shallow or a dispersed camper doesn’t carry their waste out, it can contaminate nearby water supplies and lead to unsanitary conditions. Plus, it’s gross.

“You don’t want to be camping near this,” Bryant said. “You don’t want to be experiencing this as part of your public lands, right? That’s not cool.”

People are doing other ignorant things, such as illegally driving off the road to find quiet spots to camp. Bryant pointed at a tire rut that had crushed some plants.

“This is just resource damage,” she said. “The soils are compacted now. It’s harder for the plants to get in and grow.”

From Free To Fee — Impending Restrictions On Dispersed Camping

Trampled vegetation, improperly buried human waste and growing crowds have all spurred the Bureau of Land Management to propose restricting some dispersed camping areas near popular trails in the region and introduce managed camping sites instead.

In Moab, for example, the agency has long-range plans to build five new, $20 per-night campgrounds complete with fire rings and pit toilets. Proper campgrounds have helped confine crowds in national parks and other recreation areas, and the money generated from fees is often used for campground maintenance and bathroom cleaning.

But Mike Souza, a retired plumber from California who has vacationed in Moab for 30 years, wasn’t a fan of the idea. He and his two old, red cattle dogs were relaxing in the shade of his camper trailer. The desert is becoming more crowded, he acknowledged, but he believed that clamping down on dispersed camping wasn’t the answer.

“I feel like when they close something down I say, ‘Well, why?’ I pay taxes to be able to use this,” he said.

Creating designated campsites and fee campgrounds will just drive more people to other dispersed camping areas, Souza believes, leading to the same problems there. Instead, people need to learn better camping etiquette.

“They’re not being educated in this way,” he said. “They don’t realize that this could be taken away. They think it’s theirs. They don’t know it’s a privilege. And that’s the problem.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

California Could be First State to Phase Out Single-Use Plastics

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.

Plastic garbage lying on the Aegean sea beach near Athens, Greece in 2018. The Mediterranean is one of the seas with the highest levels of plastic pollution in the world. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

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.”

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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.”

You can follow the path of the bill, SB-54, here.