LAS VEGAS (AP) — Recycling programs introduced in the Las Vegas area in 2012 — including trash pickups that don’t require consumers to sort paper, plastics and metals — have not increased the percentage of materials going to reuse instead of the landfill.
In 2012, the year the first municipality in the region adopted what is sometimes called single-stream or comingling, the recycling rate in Clark County was a record 27.5%, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. By 2019, the latest year for which data is available from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, the rate dropped below 20%.
The region’s exclusive waste-hauler, Republic Services of Southern Nevada, blames materials contamination — like when a milk carton spills onto clean cardboard or paper, making those items unsuitable for recycling.
It says education is needed.
“Don’t be a ‘wish-cycler,’ simply throwing an item in if you’re unsure it’s recyclable or not, hoping it’ll get recycled,” said Jeremy Walters, company sustainability expert. “You’re creating more harm than good. This needs to change.”
Steve Kalish, president and CEO of Waste Logistics Inc., told the newspaper the idea of residential recycling by mixing materials in one large cart was doomed.
In 2008, Kalish sat on the Clark County Recycling Advisory Committee, which reviewed community support for and opposition to the recycling program. It also reviewed recycling rates and costs.
“Back then, no one on the committee wanted to hear the reality that single-stream recycling wasn’t going to work,” he told the Review-Journal.
Recycling rates represent the percentage of discarded materials that are diverted from the landfill.
North Las Vegas was the first city in Clark County to approve single-stream recycling for single-family homes, followed by unincorporated county areas, Henderson in 2013 and the city of Las Vegas in 2016. By 2018, all four areas had implemented the program.
Previously, residents sorted recyclables into stackable red, white and blue bins. Their trash was picked up twice a week, while recyclables were collected every other week.
Under the current system, trash and recycling bins are picked up curbside once a week, eliminating a second trash pickup each week.
“People started throwing their trash into their recycling bin since they only had one trash pickup day,” Kalish said.
Susan Brager, a former Clark County commissioner who approved the comingling plan in 2013, said she hoped for a different outcome.
“I was against it at first, but then the pilot program began in my neighborhood, and I saw that it worked,” she said. “I knew it would be hard to monitor, but I was hopeful at the time.”
The Nevada Legislature in 1991 adopted a recycling goal of 25%, said Rachel Lewison, Southern Nevada recycling coordinator at the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection.
Most recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data shows that in 2019, Nevada had a 21.7% recycling rate, more than 10% below the national average of 32.1%.
Walters said he is hopeful. He noted that since single-stream recycling was widely implemented, the company has seen a 400% increase in participation.
“There’s always work to be done,” he said. “But I believe we’re on the right track.”
Tara Pike, solid waste and recycling manager at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said greater participation creates a greater risk of contaminated recyclables.
The contamination rate in southern Nevada stands at 30%, well above the 17% national average, according to a Recycling Partnership 2019 State of Curbside Survey.
Experts say several variables come into play contamination rates.
Walters noted the regional recycling program is less than a decade old, and said tourists traveling to Las Vegas from other places with various recycling policies may be unfamiliar with local programs.
Patty Moen, northern Nevada recycling coordinator at the state Division of Environmental Protection, said people became confused after single-stream recycling was introduced.
“Throwing everything in your bin doesn’t mean the entire bin will get recycled and sorted through,” she said.
Republic Services opened a $35 million recycling center in 2015 in North Las Vegas. The facility is the size of two football fields. It uses optical sorters, magnetic drums and humans to pluck contaminants from a conveyer belt carrying more than 1 million pounds of trash a day.
Walters said workers have seen all kinds of items.
“There’s the bowling balls, the car parts, soccer balls, mannequins, firearms, lamps, animals and wigs, to name a few of the strangest,” he said.
A company recycling guide shows that magazines, cardboard, plastic and glass bottles and metal cans can be recycled. Polystyrene food containers, garden hoses, greasy pizza boxes and bottles with ketchup still in them cannot.
Brager told the Review-Journal she thinks residents have grown complacent over the years.
“We need to boost education in our community and give people a nudge about our program constantly if we want to see our rates increase,” she said.
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