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Recycling Will Now Cost San Diego Millions; Polystyrene May No Longer Be Recycled

Trash piled up at the Miramar Landfill, June 24, 2019.
Matt Hoffman
Trash piled up at the Miramar Landfill, June 24, 2019.

Curbside recycling is about to get a lot more expensive in San Diego. The San Diego City Council voted Tuesday to approve new curbside recycling contracts costing an estimated $65 million over the next 10 years.

The city of San Diego's Recycling Program Manager Ken Prue said for the last 20 years the city used to make millions on recycling every year but now that is changing.

"Our contract, which was typically a revenue contract over the years and designed as a revenue contract, will actually become a cost to the city," Prue said.


Prue said much of San Diego’s recycling used to be sold to China and up until recently 2% of all recycling sent to China could contain contaminants, but that has changed to just .05%.

"The 2% standard was longstanding and they went to half-of-one percent with a lot of penalties," Prue said.

Recycling Will No Longer Be Profitable For The City Of San Diego

RELATED: China's Recyclable Materials Policy Could Lead To Loss Of Revenue For San Diego

Prue said that has created a ripple effect for the recycling markets.

"Their costs have increased because they’ve had to do more to ensure that the recycling is cleaner," he said.


The city used to make $3 million to $4 million per year selling it’s recycling — but now it is going to cost that much per year.

"For (fiscal year) 2020 it would be between $3 million and $3.5 million cost to the city and that cost would increase over the years," Prue said.

To help save money, the city is looking to get rid of recycling polystyrene which it says would cost $900,000 over 7 years.

"So it’s very expensive and actually the amount of material that’s recovered — in the last fiscal year we recovered 15 tons of Styrofoam out of 66,000 tons of curbside recyclables that were collected so it’s a really small amount," Prue said.

Instead polystyrene, commonly referred to as Styrofoam, would be sent to the Miramar Landfill.

"Ideally you would divert anything you possibly could but there’s a balance as well in looking at limited funding — you do a cost-benefit analysis," Prue said.

At Tuesday's council meeting there were no public speakers on the new recycling contracts. The members of the city council did have a long discussion about the contracts mainly focused on whether or not the city should continue to recycle polystyrene.

Some council members said they did not want the city to pay to recycle just 15 tons, while others said regardless of the costs the city should be doing everything it can to divert non-biodegradable items away from the landfill. City staff clarified that while 15 tons of polystyrene is recycled, more than 1,600 tons goes into the landfill every year — usually because it is contaminated.

Ultimately the council voted to approve the contracts and allow polystyrene to be collected for up to 6 more months while it does another cost-benefit analysis.

The city said it has money to pay for the new recycling contracts for next year, after that it is unclear how the city will pay for the contracts. Staff said they are evaluating all their options.

"Ideally the markets will rebound and then we’ll be back to receiving revenue again or at the least hopefully minimizing costs," Prue said.