Nelson area schools are no longer recycling anything but cardboard.
Not paper, not plastic, not containers.
That’s because schools in this part of School District 8 have not been able to control the amount of contamination (garbage) in the bins.
“The district has worked hard in schools over the last 15 years to get to a recycling point that was keeping quite a bit of material out of the garbage,” says SD8 operations manager Bruce MacLean.
“It has been active in every school, and in some schools, it’s been very strong. So this is a bit of a step back.”
Until recently, schools put recycling in the bins without sorting it — in recycling jargon, this is called commingling. The sorting was done by Waste Management Inc., the company that picks up the recycling and sends it to processors.
But Waste Management says it doesn’t want to sort recycling any more because of the amount of contamination in the bins. The company has been fining schools for contamination, and MacLean says the fines have become unaffordable.
This new restriction on recycling applies at all schools in Nelson plus Brent Kennedy, Blewett, and Mount Sentinel, but not in other parts of SD8 that are serviced by a different contractor.
Jackie Lang of Waste Management told the Nelson Star in an email that contamination in recycling is a pressing problem because recycling standards around the world have changed. Processing companies are refusing to take materials that they may have taken in the past.
“When an old plastic binder or dirty pizza box ends end up in the recycling container at a school once in a while,” Lang wrote, “it’s a manageable problem. When the contamination happens week after week and regularly includes plastic binders, dirty pizza boxes, coated paper, plastic bags, and even electronics, that’s a big, expensive problem.”
Lang said the company had several lengthy discussions with the district in 2019, urging schools to control contamination or do their own sorting.
But MacLean says it isn’t realistic for schools to sort recycling.
“A few of our programs are run through a student class, or driven by a teacher or a Parent Advisory Committee member. It’s inconsistent at best. Which is OK, when it’s commingled. We didn’t have to manage it as much.”
The district would have to hire someone to sort recycling.
“No one was happy about the district’s decision to scale back the program,” Lang said, “and yet we are seeing schools and businesses take this pragmatic approach. In many situations, it’s just a temporary setback. When the time is right for the school district, our Waste Management local team will be ready with the expertise and support to rebuild the program.”
Residents dump garbage at school recycle bins
Some schools have another problem that MacLean describes as “community drops.”
That’s when members of the public leave their garbage or recycling on top of the schools’ locked bins.
“If it’s on top of a bin, or beside it, Waste Management won’t pick it up,” MacLean says, “because they would have to handle it.”
MacLean says if they leave the bins open, the public throws garbage into them.
Until 2017, China was the world’s biggest market for recycled goods because of its low contamination standards. When the Chinese government announced that year that it was banning the importation of plastic waste and placing quality restrictions on all other recycled materials, the world’s recycling industry was thrown into chaos from which it has not recovered, leaving municipalities and institutions scrambling for new markets.
The changes at SD8 are one small local manifestation of changes that can be traced to international markets, exacerbated by COVID-19.