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Flagstaff Ban On Recycling Certain Plastics Begins June 1

A new recycling ban goes into effect in Flagstaff starting June 1.

Flagstaff residents have been able to recycle any type of rigid plastic with number labels one through seven. Now only numbers one and two will be accepted in curbside bins.

"A lot of people feel really good when they use their recycling bin, right? They’re not throwing something into a landfill. But they also don’t get the full story when they throw something that isn’t recyclable into the recycling bin," said Dylan Lenzen, zero waste coordinator in Flagstaff.  

He anticipates the change being hard on residents who have been recycling for decades. 

“And it gets really really confusing once we go down the rabbit hole of numbers and so it’s easier for us to communicate recycling by shape. Essentially narrow down the types of shapes you can recycle to bottles, jugs and jars,” Lenzen said. “Prior to this point in time, we told people they could recycle all kinds of rigid plastics, so anything that held its shape when you squeezed it to now communicating the fact that the only types of rigid plastic you can recycle are plastic bottles, plastic jugs, and plastic jars like peanut butter jars and stuff like that."

The new policy is because China, a major buyer of recycled products from Flagstaff and other major U.S. cities, has just placed an import ban on plastic trash. China has accepted roughly half of the world’s plastic and paper recyclables. Lenzen said the international recycling market is in a tailspin and looking for alternatives to sending plastics to a landfill.

The city has worked with Norton Environmental to sort and sell Flagstaff’s recyclables. Since China's ban, the company has been unable to find buyers for these types of plastic. Lenzen said Flagstaff is not alone, as many other communities around the country have been forced to remove items from their acceptable materials list or send significant amounts of formerly recyclable materials to the landfill.

Lenzen also said China's decision to ban certain types of recyclables is putting U.S. cities in a predicament. There is a bigger problem here: how do cities address a growing problem of material consumption and contamination in the world’s recycling stream.

Lenzen said Flagstaff residents, and recyclers across the U.S., are putting more recyclables in their recycling bins, but they have also been increasingly placing more non-recyclable items into their bin. The end result is that more recyclable items get sent to the landfill as contamination.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to clarify which types of materials are part of Flagstaff's ban.

Heather van Blokland was a host at KJZZ from 2016 to 2021.