Recycling in Virginia needs help, task force tells lawmakers
Kristi Rines often hears from Virginia Beach residents who are confused about what to recycle.
As the city’s recycling coordinator, people come to her asking about all sorts of items, many of them plastic.
“They’ll be like, ‘Well what about egg cartons?’ And I say no,” Rines said. “And then they say, ‘But it has a number on the bottom.’”
Don’t be fooled by that number and the three accompanying arrows, Rines said. Called a resin code, it identifies the chemical makeup of the product and has little to do with whether it can be recycled.
Confusion over what to recycle, and the resulting contamination at recycling plants, is among many issues facing Virginia’s recycling industry. Officials are taking notice. Rines was part of a state task force assigned to look into issues with recycling and other waste disposal methods.
The group, under the state Department of Environmental Quality, recently submitted its findings and recommendations to the General Assembly.
Lawmakers voted to create the task force in 2020. The bipartisan legislation noted that technological and economic changes in waste management have made it more difficult for localities to meet state recycling requirements.
After taking office last year, Gov. Glenn Youngkin also directed the task force to study how to attract recycling companies to Virginia.
The industry’s problems have been mounting for years.
A huge market shift began about five years ago when China announced it would no longer accept most of the world’s recycled materials, except under stringent standards of cleanliness.
That’s where a large majority of materials — including those collected and processed in Hampton Roads — used to go.
The changes had ripple effects throughout the commonwealth, including slashing profits of recycling businesses and leading several smaller localities to suspend their recycling programs.
Chesapeake City Council opted to end the city-funded curbside recycling service last year to save $2 million. City staff also said that much of the material that ended up in the blue bins was not recyclable.
Only paper, bottles and cans are accepted in those bins in Hampton Roads. That does not include all the plastic that invades our lives, such as the clamshells from a lunch salad, bags from the grocery store or straws.
But people throw in just about anything, Rines said. She’s seen strollers, stuffed animals and kiddie pools.
The problem’s known in the industry as “wishful recycling.” The wrong items don’t just end up in a landfill but can also impact a facility’s equipment and contaminate other items.
Rines previously worked for Chesapeake-based TFC Recycling, which handles most recycling in our region. She’s now worked on recycling contracts from both the government and business sides.
It seems like many people forget recycling is a business — not a public service, she said.
“If it doesn’t have a market, if that piece of plastic … doesn’t have a buyer, it’s trash,” Rines said. “Everything has to have somebody that’s willing to take that item and turn it into a new product.”
It’s all getting even harder with the rise of electronics, which are often discarded rather than reused.
“One of the things I say often is, ‘your purchase is my problem,’” she said. “People buy things without the idea of who has to take care of that when you’re done with it. And it becomes the burden of a municipal government to manage that waste.”
Recognizing that, the Southeastern Public Service Authority recently launched an e-waste program that allows Hampton Roads residents to drop off certain items.
The recent task force report recommended that Virginia officials soon figure out how to best dispose of solar panels, which are gaining popularity, once they reach end of life.
The group, which was made up of local government representatives, industry groups, environmental organizations and other businesses, also suggested giving incentives to localities to create and maintain recycling services.
It’s all about weighing costs and benefits, Rines said.
Taking waste to a landfill is currently much cheaper in most cases than recycling it. Other states even bring their trash into “landfill-heavy” Virginia.
Maryland, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina and the District of Columbia disposed of a total of more than 4 million tons in the commonwealth in 2021, according to the DEQ. That’s nearly a third of the total waste in Virginia.
There is reason for optimism, Rines said. China’s announcement several years ago prompted new businesses, such as paper recyclers, to open in the U.S.
Glass is notoriously difficult to handle because it’s heavy and delicate. And until recently, recycled glass from Hampton Roads mostly ended up in landfills as “alternative daily cover."
But TFC found a facility to send glass to in North Carolina.
James City County started collecting glass separately from the rest of materials and sends it straight to O-I Glass in Toano to be reused.
“Some of this stuff has been on the table for years,” Rines said. “It’s just now finally getting some traction.”
There’s discussion within the industry about forcing producers of plastic or other items to play more of a role in disposing of them, or to stop promoting certain products as recyclable. (Keurig recently settled a lawsuit for $10 million to resolve claims that its single-use coffee pods aren’t as recyclable as the company claimed, for instance.)
In the meantime, Rines said the best way for the average consumer to help the problem is to “pre-cycle.”
That means purposefully buying things that are easily recycled — or not buying single-use items at all.