To mark America Recycles Day, the Arizona PIRG Education Fund thought it would be helpful to shine a light on the recycling and compost rates for ten of the most populated municipalities in Arizona and offer solutions for improvement.
Unfortunately, when it comes to recycling, the following municipalities are below the national average of 34.7 percent. And, due to a lack of reporting in certain jurisdictions, the state’s overall recycling rate is unclear. However, based on low recycling rates in major municipalities and similar trends elsewhere, evidence suggests that Arizona’s statewide rate is below the national average.
All rates, with the exception of Tempe, are from 2017
While the above chart is bad news, there is good news. Changes in international trade provide a window of opportunity for recycling and economic development in our state. For decades, municipalities across the U.S. sent millions of tons of scrap material to China to be recycled. Recently, China effectively stopped accepting our refuse, claiming it was too contaminated and unsellable for recycling. The result: recyclables have been piling up in sorting facilities across Arizona and other states. This disruption has increased service costs, decreased revenue, and in some cases led recycling collectors to stop their services.
As the saying goes, change brings opportunity. In 2014, gross economic impact from recycling and other diversion was estimated at bringing in up to 35,454 jobs, $1.9 billion of gross state product, and more than $150 million in tax revenue. In the wake of China’s policy changes, we urge decision makers in Arizona to jump on the opportunity to further develop our state’s recycling economy through expanded collection, sorting, and end-market solutions previously provided by China.
Here are some specific recommendations:
Provide State-Level Support for Recycling Programs and Facilities
While many state governments offer grant programs, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality does not currently have a budget to support municipalities in such a way. Arizona can aid in raising recycling rates by providing grants and advancing opportunities to incentivize business development and improve the market for recycled materials.
Foster Municipal Collaboration
Large projects such as constructing sorting facilities and introducing collection can significantly boost recycling rates, but they usually come with high upfront costs. Neighboring municipalities should determine how best to pool resources together and implement such initiatives.
Improve Recycling Access for Multi-Unit Apartments and Businesses
Recycling for multi-unit apartments and businesses is often referred to as “commercial recycling” and handled by private haulers. Thus, it can be hard for many people to easily access recycling unless their building owner chooses to pay. Since increased participation typically leads to higher recycling rates, the best options are to either automatically provide access or to require apartments and commercial buildings to provide service.
Increase Landfill Tipping Fees
Waste collectors pay “tipping fees” by the ton when they dump material into landfills. When tipping fees are low, it can be cheaper for waste management companies to send bins of recyclable and compostable materials to a landfill rather than ensuring they are diverted (this is becoming more common due to market conditions causing recyclables to pile up at sorting operations). Increasing the cost of dumping at landfills, therefore, can encourage trash collectors to ensure these materials are handled properly. Furthermore, the revenue from an increase in the tipping fee can go towards improving or introducing recycling and compost infrastructure.
Expand Residential Compost
Around 30 percent of household waste is compostable. This includes food waste, yard waste and contaminated paper products such as pizza boxes and paper towels. Like recycling, compost allows waste to become useable again. Compost can also be a nutrient-rich resource for gardens, parks, and open spaces. Expanding municipal compost programs to all Arizonans could nearly double even the highest recycling rates while also supporting local compost facilities. Currently, private services are available in some cities, including Recycled City in the Phoenix area, though citizens must pay for the program.
Expand the Be S.M.A.R.T. (Save Money And Reduce Trash) System
In SMART systems (also called “Pay As You Throw”), individuals who request smaller trash bins (thus throwing less away) pay less for trash service. In turn, trash fees provide revenue for curbside recycling and compost collection. A nationwide study showed that the adoption of the SMART system can bring major savings, reduce waste by 14 percent, and increase recycling by over 32 percent. In Arizona, such systems have been adopted in Phoenix and Tempe.
Restore Local Control for Plastics Laws
One of the best ways to reduce waste is to stop using harmful and non-recyclable plastics. Arizona prevents municipalities from regulating items such as plastic bags, which can be replaced with safer, less wasteful materials. The State of Arizona should repeal HB 2131 and allow local governments to make decisions regarding plastics in their communities.
On America Recycles Day, it seems only fitting that our state and local leaders commit to ambitious -- yet achievable – goals and a game plan to reduce, reuse and recycle. We encourage starting with our recommendations while simultaneously helping Arizona create additional economic opportunities.
 Margolis, J. (January 1, 2018). Mountains of US recycling pile up as China restricts imports. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2018-01-01/mountains-us-recycling-pile-china-restricts-imports
 Waste Dive (November 2, 2018). What Chinese import policies mean for all 50 states. Retrieved from https://www.wastedive.com/news/what-chinese-import-policies-mean-for-all-50-states/510751/
Resource Innovation and Solutions Network (November 2017). Recycle, Repair, Reuse: Gross Economic Impact Estimates of Existing Circular Economy Activities in Maricopa County, 2014. Retrieved from https://static.sustainability.asu.edu/giosMS-uploads/sites/18/2018/02/03135239/RISN-EIA-Phase-1-Final.pdf
 Of Phoenix’s current waste stream, only 3.4% is organics diversion. Given that typically 30% of household waste is compostable, there is still around 27% that could be diverted in Phoenix. This would bring Phoenix’s recycling rate from 33% to 60%. This information came from data provided by Joseph B. Shaw. Recycling Coordinator. Solid and Hazardous Waste Office, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Email communication, September 20th, 2018.
 Recycled City. Our Service. Retrieved from http://www.recycledcity.com/aboutus
 United States Environmental Protection Agency. Pay-As-You-Throw: Paying for Waste Disposal - What Are the Choices? https://archive.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/tools/payt/web/pdf/benefits.pdf
State of Arizona House of Representatives (2016). HB 2131. Retrieved from https://www.azleg.gov/legtext/52leg/2r/bills/hb2131p.pdf