AKRON, Colo. — Once you toss out your trash, it finds a new home, but looking closely, not everything in some landfills needs to be thrown away for good.
Recycling is not as simple a process as putting something in a garbage bin and re-purposing it into something new.
“It's a responsibility to recycle because you have to put back a clean product,” said Dencia Raish, the town clerk administrator for Akron, Colorado. “You have to make sure it's sorted correctly, and it's just a responsibility to get it right. A responsibility to pay for it."
The burden is one Akron can no longer carry, and it was a decision Raish thought she’d never see in her hometown.
“It was disappointing to lose the recycling program in Akron. There were citizens who were pretty brokenhearted about it because we want to do the right thing out here, but it's just cost-prohibitive to make it happen,” said Raish.
The cost of recycling is higher now because the United States used to sell recyclable goods to China, things like cardboard and plastic bottles, but in 2018, China tossed out their deal.
“Over the past decade or two, China had been a very common destination for a lot of recyclable goods here in the U.S.,” explained senior editor of Waste Dive, Cole Rosengren. “Many other countries were sending it there as well. The idea was they do a lot of manufacturing and use this material for manufacturing, and then, there's a good cycle going on there. Chinese government decided around 2017, after already making some signals they're drawing back, that they wanted to limit the import of scrap material for various reasons. They cited environmental and health factors and also just because they were trying to ramp up their own recycling efforts, which had not been that formal in the past.”
The United States doesn’t have the widespread infrastructure to process recyclables, so the price to recycle is too high for some communities.
“The cost of recycling was going to double, and the town wasn't going to be able to absorb that cost,” said Raish.
Because of this, Akron now throws all recyclables in the landfill.
Walking along sanitation worker Devin Thorn’s route, the problem was clear.
“There’s cardboard in there again, that’s probably our most common thing, we probably get some cardboard at almost every stop,” said Thorn, who supervises the sanitation department. “A quarter of our trash or so could be recycled pretty easy."
Thorn worked for the sanitation department in high school and said the volume of trash he sees today is a stark change from years ago.
“It’s very drastic,” said Thorn. “Everything’s become much more of a throw-away society, so the volume of trash for roughly the same amount of people, I bet we had half the trash 20 years ago.”
The extra garbage is forcing his team to make more trips to the dump.
“We’d probably take two to three less trips to the dump a month with the recycling gone,” said Thorn. “It would be nice to not see our landfills fill up so fast and to reuse what we can save the earth for our future generations. Everything’s hard right now, this has been a struggle for a while even before the COVID.”
“COVID has put a strain administratively on government across the board,” said Raish. “And again, that just takes up the time that we could have been spending looking for recycling.”
After China stopped buying U.S. recyclables, that stopped dozens of cities across the country from recycling, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse, with even more cities forced to pause or stop their recycling programs altogether.
Cole Rosengren, senior editor from Waste Dive, said before much was known about the virus, there was great fear among sanitation workers about contracting COVID-19 from picking up trash or recycled goods.
“There were of course programs that were just affected by labor shortages. The workers who pick up the recycling, or the workers who were at the facility sorting were sick, or had to quarantine, or had family obligations,” said Rosengren. “And so, just the capacity to keep these programs running was affected in many areas. That has started to improve, but we're still seeing waves of that. There's some large cities now that temporarily paused their programs because of that.”
Raish said the city staff is working on solutions, including a recycling drop off for plastics and cardboard. She is hoping this will give community members who want to recycle a way to easily contribute goods.
“I know we can get back to recycling in some way. I have no doubt about that. We can,” said Raish.
Because even with limited resources, this community is determined to make an impact on the future by leaving less of an impact on their environment.