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County says sorting plastic bags, disposable coffee cups and other garbage from recycling bins adds expenses

As Columbia County residents gear up for rate increases to garbage services, the county is tackling a bigger problem.

After recent announcements that China will no longer accept recycled materials from the United States, garbage companies and government agencies have had to look elsewhere for places to accept and pay for materials like plastic, cardboard and mixed paper.

Finding a place for the county's recycled material might be a fixable issue, but reducing what ends up in household recycling bins is a much bigger dilemma.

Kathy Boutin-Pasterz is a solid waste program coordinator for Columbia County. She says what's going on in the garbage and recycling industry, in terms of lost contracts with China, is unprecedented. SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Recycling bins at the Columbia County Transfer Station keep garbage away from recyclable materials. County officials say so many items of garbage end up in recycling bins, that it drives up costs in the long run.

"This is a situation we have never been in," Boutin-Pasterz said Wednesday. "The Chinese government has put the ban on materials to reduce the pollution in China."

Shipping recycled waste off to China made sense, considering the U.S.'s long-standing trade and import history with the country. As goods were shipped to the U.S. in large shipping containers, companies could easily send the containers back with mixed cardboard, paper and plastic products.

It was a practical way to prevent solid waste like paper and plastic from ending up in landfills.

"Recycling has never made money," Boutin-Pasterz notes. "It was just half the price of throwing it away."

Before shipping off any recycled materials, regardless of whether they're going overseas or just across state lines, there is a sorting process that must take place.

"The first line of defense is everything from the recycling bins is put on a wide conveyor belt, where things are being pulled off," Boutin-Pasterz explains. She says the conveyor belt helps weed out materials that don't belong in recycling bins, like plastic grocery bags, paper coffee cups and takeout containers. The entire process relies on people, which adds labor and time costs to the overall cost of disposal.

Sorting costs become greater when the wrong items end up on the conveyor belt.

PHOTO COURTESY OF KATHY BOUTIN-PASTERZ - Workers at a material recycling facility sort recycled items thrown on a conveyor belt, to pick out garbage that doesn't belong."The number one contaminant is plastic bags," Boutin-Pasterz says. "It says it everywhere on the bin, 'No plastic bags,' but people put the recycling inside [plastic] bags. They put bags in bags. If it gets into those machines it will bind up and the whole process shuts down."

Boutin-Pasterz says aside from lost contracts with China, properly sorting garbage from recycling is one of the biggest challenges the county currently faces.

All waste picked up by garbage haulers throughout the county first goes to the Columbia County Transfer Station. From there, it goes to a materials recycling facility, or MRF.

The MRF is where the real dirty work of removing garbage from recyclable material happens, and it can drive up household and commercial garbage hauling costs, says Boutin-Pasterz.

"People see plastic and think, 'Oh, when it gets there, somebody will figure out where it goes,' but what you've basically done is sent your garbage to the recycling center, which requires more work to sort," Boutin-Pasterz says. "This is a commodity that we're going to recycle. If it's got garbage in it, we're just spending more time, literally, digging through what we're going to recycle. It takes time and costs more, and we're paying more to throw away what was garbage in the first place."

The county official says an upcoming garbage rate hearing at the county on June 20 will likely result in increases to monthly garbage bills, consistent with previous years.

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