Plastics fill a recycling bin at the Rio Rico Landfill in April 2013.

When residents around Santa Cruz County put their waste in the recycling bin, it almost always ends up in the trash.

John Hays, who manages the county’s solid waste, said that the county hasn’t recycled plastics in about a year, and stopped recycling paper six to eight months ago.

“We’re having trouble finding places to send it to,” he said. “And when we are able to find a place to send it to, it’s too contaminated, it’s got too much garbage in it.”

Hays said the county does still recycle cardboard and metals, which he said account for roughly 15 percent and less than five percent, respectively, of total recyclable material in the county.

But, he added, he expects that the company that currently buys recycled cardboard from the county will soon start charging to take the material, at which point the county would likely send the cardboard to the landfill to save money.

Now, the county is looking for a new company to haul off its recycling and expects to open a bidding process in coming months.

“I’m hoping we can find some organizations that are looking for recycling materials,” Hays said, though he added that he expects the county will have to pay for the service rather than sell its recyclable material.

Santa Cruz County’s recycling woes are part of a story playing out in cities and counties across the country, including the City of Nogales.

In February, the company that handles waste for the city said it had stopped recycling all materials except metal, which represented less than five percent of total recyclables.

Like the city, the county government has had trouble with increasingly stringent contamination requirements in recycling loads.

China, which used to process a significant portion of recycling, imposed a new contamination limit of 0.5 percent in 2018.

“To put that into perspective, 0.5 percent contamination would be equivalent to having a six-pack of soda in a Prius. That’s how little it takes to contaminate a load to the point where it will not be accepted,” Hays said.

“People have been recycling things that are just not recyclable, putting plastic bags in everything,” he added.

In 2013, the County Board of Supervisors nearly eliminated the recycling program, which at the time was costing the county around $50,000 per year.

After outcry from residents, the board agreed to raise fees in order to continue the recycling program.

But that hasn’t kept the program out of the red.

County Public Works Director Jesus Valdez confirmed to the NI that the recycling program continued to lose money for the county. However, a public information request for recycling costs since 2013 was not returned by Thursday afternoon.

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