The city of Bakersfield plans to re-evaluate its curbside recycling program with potential changes coming that could include rate hikes or limitations to what residents are allowed to put in their blue pickup bins.
Although nothing has been set in stone, the city’s Public Works Department hopes to have a recommendation ready for the Bakersfield City Council by the end of September.
The recycling market saw a downturn at the beginning of the year when China, which had been taking about 60 percent of the world’s recycling, tightened its policies on the kinds of material it would accept from other countries.
“It’s made paper and low-value plastics extremely hard to recycle and made things extremely expensive,” said Jacob Panero, director of Metropolitan Recycling, a local recycling center that contracts with the city and county.
To meet the higher standards, Metropolitan Recycling has doubled the amount of quality control employees on shift at any one time, said Bakersfield Solid Waste Director Kevin Barnes.
What used to be a shift of around six has increased to around 12. The increase is necessary to sort out unrecyclable material from the tons that come through the facility each day.
The expenses have added up quickly.
The city used to receive about $20 a ton when it dropped off material at the recycling centers; now it has to pay between $55 and $70 to get the recyclables off its hands.
At about 12,500 tons of material recycled each year, the expenses add up quickly. Costs could potentially reach $1 million over the course of a year if recycling markets remain down.
It’s an expense that is being felt across the country. In early July, the city of Sacramento announced that it would stop accepting certain types of plastics into its recycling program.
Nearly every plastic item is labeled with a number between 1 and 7, and Sacramento banned items labeled with the numbers 4-7.
Items with higher numbers are more difficult to recycle.
Other cities, including Bakersfield, may follow Sacramento’s lead.
“Every city in the United States that has a recyclable program is forced to deal with this,” said Bakersfield Public Works Director Nick Fidler.
The city has entered talks with the two independent recycling facilities it contracts with to try and come up with a strategy for dealing with the ballooning costs of recycling.
“We’re just now at the tip of the iceberg,” Fidler said. “The city doesn’t know how we’re going to deal with the current issue.”
Possible solutions could include following Sacramento’s lead, and reducing the types of plastic accepted into the recycling program.
Or the city could raise rates for curbside pickup to cover the new cost of recycling.
Another option would be to change mixed paper from a recyclable material to compost.
“We have to find the right balance point,” Barnes said. “That’s a moving target.”
The state mandates municipalities recycle 50 percent of all refuse.
Barnes said Bakersfield recycles about 62 percent of its trash.
“So we’re doing quite well,” he said.
But if no solution is found, recycling materials that Bakersfield residents put in their blue carts could end up in a landfill.
A memo by the Public Works Department said the city would only reduce its diversion rate by 3 percent if it sent all recyclable material to a landfill.
“It’s cheaper to landfill it, but obviously that’s not the ultimate goal of the program,” said Jon Price, co-owner of Price Disposal, which contracts with the city to haul trash and recycling.
As the city looks for new ways to keep its recycling program alive, prices continue to change for recycling. As bad as it is now, it could get worse in the future, which would impact the options the city could use for its recycling program.
“I would love to say that I think we’ve hit bottom,” Fidler said, “but I don’t think so yet.”