Virginia keeps tabs on recycling rates, but they are self-reported
Kristi Rines, a mother and soon-to-be grandmother, is one of Virginia’s supreme experts on recycling — and she believes at least one principle of parenting applies to recycling.
Local governments should set the rules of the game when hiring companies to collect recyclables, she said, rules that ensure recycling companies are contractually obligated to actually recycle recyclables.
“It’s important to set the tone. It’s like being the parent. You want to raise your kids a certain way. You don’t want your kids to raise you,” Rines said.
Rines, among numerous other recycling roles, is the recycling coordinator for the city of Virginia Beach.
“Our contract specifically states with our recycling company that they can’t landfill anything. Everything has to be recycled or go to beneficial use,” Rines said.
Virginia Beach is one of eight localities that make up the Southeastern Public Service Authority Solid Waste Planning Unit. That SWPU had a combined recycling rate of 36.7% in 2017.
Things like contractual agreements prohibiting recycling collection companies from taking pit stops at landfills are among the nuanced details that can have a big impact. In the complicated and occasionally confusing world of recycling, it’s often those seemingly little practices and procedures that add up to big differences in the health of the environment.
A lot of brainstorming is still needed
Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who represents Charlottesville and parts of Albemarle County, said he hasn’t figured out exactly what needs to be done about recycling in Virginia, but it’s heavy on his mind.
“I don’t have all of the answers,” Deeds said. “I don’t even know all the questions. I just know it’s an issue we have to come together on. And we have to do it quickly, because I know it’s a crisis in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.”
Deeds said there’s a crisis because there’s too much waste that has no home, meaning it’s just piling up in landfills and causing pollution, in many cases.
“Not everyone has wanted to kind of look toward finding what we need to do in the future to make sure we can develop the market for recyclables,” Deeds said.
Incentives could be among the solutions, he said.
“I think you probably need to look at some grants or tax credits,” he said.
Deeds said he has been mulling the idea of a state tax credit for manufacturers. Manufacturers would get tax breaks in exchange for using recycled materials, Deeds said.
“I’d like to maybe do some brainstorming with people about whether this idea makes sense,” Deeds said. “Does that give value to Virginia taxpayers? I think it does.”
Deeds said Virginia has increasingly lost its appetite for new tax credits, because budgets have been stuffed with tax credits over the years, costing the state billions of dollars. However, he believes a good case could be made in this situation.
“It’s cheaper in the long haul and makes more sense for us to reuse it, recycle it, than to put it in landfills,” Deeds said. “We can’t landfill our way out of this issue, I don’t think. It just doesn’t make sense for us from an environmental standpoint or a cost standpoint.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about. It’s something I need to go beyond thinking and need to engage in conversations with local governments and with other legislators and see if an action plan can be developed, because I know that this is an issue that frustrates an awful lot of people.”
Virginia offers incentives. Are they enough?
There are tax credits, grants and even tax exemptions in Virginia for the collection and processing of recyclables and education that promotes recycling, but questions revolve around whether those incentives are enough.
Businesses can get a state income tax credit for purchasing machines that process recyclables, for example, but that tax credit — or reduction in taxes for the business — is only worth 20% of the actual cost of the equipment.
Meanwhile, the state has had a robust grant program since 1980 for litter prevention and recycling education. For fiscal year 2019 alone, more than $1.9 million was dispersed among 190 applicants throughout the state for various recycling education and anti-littering programs, according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Since 1981, Virginia businesses have contributed more than $63 million to the trust fund that supports the local litter control and recycling programs, according to the DEQ.
There also are smaller things that Virginia does to encourage recycling, such as requiring universities to create recycling programs and mandating that companies that sell lead acid batteries post signs about how to dispose of them, among dozens of other recycling regulations.
When it comes to awarding contracts with companies, the Code of Virginia even outlines that state agencies should give preference to those companies that use recyclable paper that meets Environmental Protection Agency standards, even if it means rejecting bids as much as 10% cheaper.
There are also property tax exemptions available in some cases for businesses that process recyclables, among other incentives.
Virginia requires localities to track recycling, through self-reporting
The DEQ conducts an annual report compiling regional recycling rates.
Those numbers are self-reported by the regional solid waste planning units, and the most recent report, in 2017, doesn’t reflect the China ban. The DEQ recycling report for 2018 is due later this year and will show just how the state has fared after taking a big hit in 2018, when China halted plastic recycling imports.
In the past, most regions have comfortably met the 25% recycling rate that’s typically the state minimum requirement. None of the solid waste planning units — which typically incorporate several localities in a region — that were required to report fell below that figure in 2017.
The state requires solid waste planning units with more than 100,000 residents to report their recycling rates using a calculation that factors in product consumption compared with recycled or reused material.
The state code requires each SWPU to have at least a 25% annual recycling rate, unless the population density is less than 100 people per square mile or the unemployment rate is more than 50% higher than the state unemployment average. In those two cases, the minimum recycling rate is 15%.
The SWPU that encompasses Charlottesville and Albemarle has fared poorly compared with statewide averages in the most recent report.
The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission SWPU, which includes Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna and Greene, produced a recycling rate of 32.2%, which is well above the minimum threshold for recycling but 10.8 percentage points below the state’s overall recycling rate of 42.8% in 2017.
In comparison, the Central Virginia Waste Management Authority, which includes Richmond and surrounding localities, was the best of all 17 SWPUs required to report, with a 59% recycling rate.
The DEQ is analyzing 2018 figures provided by localities and plans to finalize that report by November, according to Gregory Bilyeu, a spokesman for DEQ.
Officials with the TJPDC SWPU and Central Virginia Waste Management Authority provided Charlottesville Tomorrow their 2018 reports ahead of the official release by DEQ. The two regional agencies noted that those reports have not been finalized by DEQ.
Despite the blow to the recycling world when China announced it wouldn’t be taking plastic recycling imports from the U.S., the TJPDC SWPU actually fared better in 2018. The Charlottesville-area agency saw a modest increase in its recycling rate, jumping from its 32.2% recycling rate in 2017 to 36.6% in 2018, based on preliminary figures. That still would put the Charlottesville area below the state average, if Virginia ends up hovering around the 42.8% rate it saw in 2017.
However, Deeds expressed some concern about whether some localities might struggle to meet the state’s 25% recycling rate threshold now that China has banned plastic imports.
“We’ve got mandates … and we’re not going to be able to meet our goals because the Chinese aren’t taking plastics, and we haven’t really developed use for them domestically.”
The Central Virginia Waste Management Authority saw virtually no change in its recycling rate in 2018 — with a 58.7% recycling rate in 2018, compared with 59% a year prior, based on preliminary 2018 numbers.
The formula to determine a region’s recycling rate accounts for the tons of material disposed compared with recycled. From there, regions can earn up to 5 percentage points in credits tacked onto their recycling rates if they have systems in place that promote sustainability, including programs designed to reduce the sources of wastes.
In the region encompassing Charlottesville and Albemarle, there are about 197,000 people. Here, there was 176,000 tons of waste in 2018, of which 120,000 tons were disposed and 56,000 tons recycled.
In the Richmond region, there were 1.2 million people in 2018 and 980,000 tons of waste, of which 454,000 tons were disposed and 526,000 tons recycled.
Both regions were credited for their sustainability efforts, adding 5 percentage points to their recycling rates.
Richard Nolan, the director of operations for CVWMA, said the DEQ checks the math in the reports and looks to make sure that the numbers make sense, and after analyzing and addressing any oddities, sends a letter to the localities approving their rates.
The DEQ also reviews the solid waste management plans for completeness. Any SWPU that falls below the required recycling rate is required by DEQ to submit a Recycling Action Plan.
The overall state recycling rates haven’t fluctuated much in recent years. The 2017 recycling rate of 42.8% just barely bested the 2016 figure of 42.6%. The recycling rate was 44.2% in 2015 and 42.5% in 2014.
The report shows that that far less plastic was recycled than paper and metal across Virginia. Only about 103,000 tons of plastic were recycled, compared with 700,000 tons of metal and 428,000 tons of paper.
Across the 17 regions in Virginia required to report, which encompasses 117 localities, about 2.6 million tons of material was recycled, compared with 4.3 million tons disposed.
While the overall figures have been stable in recent years, Rines said the system at least creates some accountability among the regions and also reveals areas in which improvements are needed.
Rines — who in addition to her role as Virginia Beach’s recycling coordinator also is the executive director of Keep Virginia Beach Beautiful and a member of the Virginia Recycling Association’s board of directors — said she’s never seen the DEQ audit the data from her SWPU. She called the system “good faith reporting.”
However, Rines added that the numbers at least her department provided are clearly truthful, because they’re thorough and also show some unflattering dips.
She said Virginia Beach’s yard debris recycling declined considerably in the past two years because the city lost access to the composting facility that previously took yard debris. Having to report those numbers serves as a wake-up call that it’s an area that needs to be addressed, she said.
“We don’t like the decline in that number. We want that number to be better,” Rines said. “So, that’s an upside to one of those reports. You’re able to look at what you’ve had, look at the improvements.”
Officials are also able to spot changes in solid waste consumption, for example, and then justify updating city equipment used for recycling, Rines said.
As to the verification process used by DEQ, spokesman Greg Bilyeu wrote in an email that the individual localities and SWPUs are responsible for collecting their own recycling data for the recycling rate reports.
“DEQ provides guidelines as to how recycling rates should be calculated and reported,” Bilyeu said. “Webinars are also offered by DEQ for the planning units on how to report as accurately as possible.”
One webinar, for example, simply walks local officials through the reporting process using a spreadsheet.
From there, Bilyeu said, the DEQ “checks the numbers for consistency and any significant changes that may have occurred due to the market or other conditions.”
The DEQ also is working on a report to the General Assembly that evaluates Virginia’s solid waste recycling rates and creates a set of recommendations for improving the reliability of the supply of recycled material during the next 10 years.
Virginia's General Assembly building in Richmond.
Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods \ Charlottesville Tomorrow
The General Assembly passed a bill last year calling on the DEQ to complete such a report by Nov. 1.
“The evaluation shall consider incentive-based strategies, including the granting of economic development incentives for the construction of materials-recovery facilities and beneficiation facilities that have the potential to increase beneficial use of glass, plastic, metal and fiber,” the legislation states.
“The evaluation shall also investigate the effect of the operation of mixed-waste material recycling facilities on the quality and quantity of recyclable materials available for beneficial use.”
Bilyeu said the DEQ is “aware of the overall bigger issues, including the impact China’s revisions in recycling material acceptance is having on the recycling market.”
The DEQ is discussing the issue with counterparts in other states and working with the EPA to host a construction and demolition waste recycling stakeholders meeting in July.
The most recent DEQ report with 2017 figures doesn’t reflect one of the biggest blows to recycling in the U.S. in modern times, though — China cracking down on the types of recyclables it would accept from the U.S.
China’s being stricter on the U.S. What’s ‘recyclable’ still is confusing.
Some types of plastics are not accepted.
Credit: Stacey Evans \ Charlottesville Tomorrow
With many U.S. recyclables heading overseas to China, it began calling out the U.S. last year on its contaminated recyclables and refusing to accept many recycling imports. Recycling companies in the U.S. are increasingly cracking down on what it will take from residents now, and those effects are trickling down to Virginia.
When asked if she has talked with people who are giving up on recycling, because they don’t understand how it works, Rines said in a long, drawn out response, coupled with an endearing laugh: “Every … single … day.”
“I’ll be on the phone and [residents will ask], ‘What about a Pringles can?’” Rines said, before rattling off other examples of frequently asked questions about recycling.
In the case of those containers from the popular potato chip company, she tells recyclers “no,” but some still struggle to accept the answer.
“It’s amazing that they want to make it that way,” she said, explaining that some people have been including certain items that don’t belong in recycling bins for years and don’t want to believe they don’t belong there.
But Rines acknowledged that the matter of what can be recycled isn’t easy for folks to understand — and with good reason.
Part of the problem has been how various communities in Virginia have marketed recycling (an issue that’s also occurred elsewhere in the U.S.), particularly single-stream recycling, likely leaving folks to think that more items can be recycled than reality.
She said many communities in the U.S. have done “very, very little to educate.” Instead of explaining what can be recycled, she said, there has been an overly broad message: “All in one bin.”
“When you say, ‘All in one bin,’ people are going to make the Barbie doll recyclable. They’re going to make the stuffed toy and the clothing recyclable. And nobody told them no,” she said.
That’s part of the reason many recycling facilities have become so contaminated that they’ve had to close, Rines said.
Certain items are just eliminated because there’s no reasonable way to profit. Typical yogurt plastic cups, for example, aren’t accepted in Virginia Beach, she said. Among other issues, they would need to be completely cleaned, which many consumers aren’t likely to do, and it wouldn’t be feasible for the collectors to do it.
“It’s trash until it has a buyer. If you don’t have a buyer for your material, then everything is trash. So, somebody has to want it. They have to have a process in place to make that item into another item,” she said.
Much can be improved if those collecting recyclables change their practices, she said, noting that there aren’t many collectors who refuse containers and put tags on dirty recycling bins noting they can’t accept them because there’s styrofoam in there.
In fact, County Waste’s recycling trucks use a mechanical arm to pick up bins to prevent the driver from having to get out of the truck. While reporting this story, we watched a County Waste truck arm pick up a Charlottesville residential bin full of yard clippings and mangled old, dirty plastic containers.
In an ideal world, Rines said, the haulers should be telling people with contaminated bins why their bins are contaminated, so that it can be avoided in the future.
Part of it comes down to how dedicated the haulers are and the incentives provided by the companies. For example, it would be valuable to the recycling company and the environment if companies rewarded haulers for having clean loads, as opposed to rewarding them based on the weight of the loads, Rines said. If they’re just going to get rewarded for bringing back heavy loads, they’re going to be less likely to sift through the material and also educate homeowners.
“If the companies starting making that shift … it’s a win-win,” she said.
*Featured image by Stacey Evans.