Kentucky Communities Differ in Facing Cost and Market Challenges of Recycling

Jul 29, 2020

Materials collected at the Pulaski County, Kentucky Recycling Center
Credit Pulaski County Recycling Center

Recycling in the U.S. has become more difficult since China stopped accepting plastic in 2018.

Counties and cities across Kentucky are choosing differing ways to handle, or not handle, the recycling of plastic, cardboard, paper, glass, and aluminum and metal cans.

The scarcity of markets for recycled plastic and the cost of recycling overall add to the obstacles for communites, at the same time landfills continue to run out of space, and changes in packaging by manufacturers, which would reduce waste, move along at a slow pace.  The challenges to recycling have mulitpled with the COVID-19 pandemic.


Warren County recently halted curbside collection of recycling and is planning to put out a request for proposals for a new company to handle recycling, due to the county's contract with Southern Recycling ending on July 31. 

Pulaski County, meanwhile, continues curbside recycling under a contract with Waste Connections that runs through 2022. Pulaski County doesn't collect glass curbside, but it can be dropped off by residents. The glass is mostly crushed and repurposed for uses such as gravel by the county recycling center.

WKU Public Radio Reporter Rhonda Miller updated the details of Warren County recycling and talked with Pulaski County Recycling Manager Danny Masten.

Miller:

Warren County residents will no longer be able to drop off plastic and glass at Southern Recycling after July 31, due to the cost of recycling and the difficulty of finding buyers for those items. Southern Recycling will continue to accept cardboard, newspaper and computer paper, as well as aluminum and metal cans dropped off at the Plum Springs location. Warren County ended curbside pickup of recycling on March 31.

In Pulaski County curbside pickup for the most common plastics, as well as cardboard, paper, and aluminum and metal cans, is an ongoing program, and glass is accepted at drop-off locations. I talked with Pulaski County Solid Waste Coordinator and Recycling Manager Danny Masten about the program that picks up recycling from about 10,000 households in the county, including the city of Somerset, and about the possibilities and challenges for recycled materials.

Masten:
Yes, we process plastic number one PVC plastic water bottles, Coke bottles. And we do number two plastic, which is normally your milk jugs, your laundry detergent jugs and some containers.

Miller:
Do you pick up plastic cups? Like from yogurt or things like that?

Masten:
No, generally those will be a different type of plastic. Generally, those are number five plastics.

Miller:
Did the China issue, when they stopped buying, did that affect your county very much?

Masten:
It didn't affect us directly. Since our curbside installation in 2013, we had just pretty much stayed with ones and twos and we're not collecting the three through seven plastics. The market was thin in the first place to get rid of those. So we decided not to accept those items because of how hard it was to market them and get them out and recycled.

Miller:
What do you do with your plastics that you collect? Do you sell them, or where do they go?

Masten:
Yes, we process them and we load them on a semi and send them to Louisville, to West Rock Recycling, and they buy it from us and then send it on to plastic mills, where they'll will process it and make it into new materials.

Miller:
So the county actually sells it and gets some income from that?

Masten:
We do we get a small income and it's not a large amount of plastic. Our main revenue stream is cardboard. And with the amount of businesses in the city of Somerset and Pulaski County, we're able to survive through that revenue stream.

Miller:
What do you see as the future of recycling, especially plastic?

Masten:
Plastic is the big iff-y mark in recycling. There's always going to be a market for the cardboard and there's always going to be a market for paper and cans and steel and all those things. Plastic, the overall idea is for companies to find more ways to introduce these plastics into their streams. I know Adidas and Reebok have an initiative to recycle the number one PET plastic more into their clothing line and their shoe line. Actually, I ordered a pair of Reebok shoes that are made 100 percent from recycled materials. And a lot of clothing companies are introducing that PET plastic into their blue jeans and their T-shirts.

Pulaski County Recycling Center
Credit Pulaski County Recycling Center

Miller:

Does your recycling include aluminum cans, like you know, 12-pack of Coke cans, beer cans, things like that?

Masten:

Yeah, we accept all aluminum whether it's the high-grade aluminum, which is your Coke cans and your beer cans, like you're talking about ,we do scrap aluminum, which is your cat food or dog food. We do all the metals cans, for your baked beans or your soups. We do glass and various paper products and those two plastics.

Miller:
Well Danny, thank you so much for talking with me. I really appreciate it.

Masten:

Appreciate it. Thank you.