Surprise, Valley recycling issues not going away

[Courtesy of Waste Management]


It’s been so long since the City of Surprise has raised its fees for trash and recycling collection that when it finally happened this month it even threw off the wife of one of the councilmen.

“My wife was commenting on the water bill being a little higher this month,” said District 4 Councilman Ken Remley, who serves the Original Town Site and surrounding areas.

Apparently, Beverely Remley didn’t attend one of her husband’s “Talking Trash” community discussions that he conducted with a member of the city’s waste disposal team to help spread the word to residents about the increase.

“I’m kind of proactive about things,” Mr. Remley said. “I did a traveling dog and pony show to the HOAs.”

Specifically, the Remleys and many other Surprise residents are finding their bills about $3.25 higher starting July 1.

Some of that increase has to do with a changing recycling market, which has gone from a money-making venture to a cost to the city, after China decided to stop accepting most United States recyclables.

“There are challenges with recycling that have not slowed down,” Surprise Public Works Director Mike Gent told the City Council last month.

Mr. Gent said nearly a dozen Arizona cities have suspended their curbside recycling programs indefinitely and several other cities like Surprise have chosen to pay the increased fees to continue the program for their residents.

“This is not unique to Arizona,” Mr. Gent said. “Nationwide, we’re seeing these same challenges across the country.”

Surprise and other cities that offer curbside service had to come up with creative ways to continue providing it without breaking the bank.

“Unfortunately, some of our partner cities around the region and the state are not finding viable options at all,” Mr. Gent said.

Market changes

Surprise began its curbside recycling program on a trial basis nearly two decades ago.

Thanks to a $195,000 grant from the state, the city tested it in October 2003 in the Mountain Vista Ranch and West Point neighborhoods. Six months later, it was unveiled to the entire city and has been provided ever since.

Waste Management, the largest recycler in North America, has been providing services to Surprise while the two sides work out a new agreement that had expired.

Surprise recently issued a request for bids for the recycling contract, but it received only one proposal – Waste Management.

“At the present time, the city is still in negotiations on the most recent proposal and is unable to give specifics,” Deputy Manager Terry Lowe said.

Likewise, Waste Management communications director Jennifer Rivera referred questions about the contract negotiations back to the city.

Last month, Mr. Gent spoke to the City Council about moving $100,000 in the solid waste budget from salaries to supplies to cover extra disposal costs of trash and recycling. At the time he said the rate that Waste Management was requesting was “not sufficient” for the city.

“My hope would be we could come to an agreement that would allow us to use the newly approved rates and live within that for the next five years – and continue to recycle,” Mr. Gent told the Council. “But we’re at the table still.”

West Valley cities El Mirage, Peoria, Glendale, Avondale, Buckeye, Litchfield Park and Wickenburg also provide curbside recycling service.

“Several factors, including receiving favorable rates from entities that would accept our recyclables and the willingness of our ratepayers to pay for the service, weigh into the continuation of the program,” Mr. Lowe said. “City staff continues to evaluate the effects of the recycling program on the overall solid waste operation. City Council, through recommendations from staff, will determine if the City will continue with the program.”

Chinese conversion

The City Council first became aware of recycling concerns in March 2018 when Ms. Rivera detailed the Chinese government’s new rules.

After shipping about a fourth of its products to China in 2017, the company no longer sends any residential products overseas, although they do sell some paper to other countries.

That’s because contamination has become the major issue for Chinese importers. When non-recyclable items are placed in the bins and mixed in with the recyclables, that collection is considered contaminated.

It seems, Americans aren’t very good at figuring out what goes in the recycling bin and what goes in the trash.

Ms. Rivera said of the 100,000 tons of “recyclables” collected in Surprise bins in 2017 and 2018, 45% of it was determined to be contaminated last year, a jump up from 28% the year before.

“Recycling contamination continues to be a challenge,” Ms. Rivera said. “We are working with our customers to raise awareness about proper recycling, so that we can improve the quality of our inbound recycling stream and help ensure the long-term viability of sustainable recycling in communities across the country.”

Plastic grocery bags turned out to be the final straw for China. When the bags get stuck in the gears of recycling machines, it can slow down an entire operation, costing companies valuable time and money. Plus, a plastic bag takes about four centuries to biodegrade.

As soon as a recycling plant receives items wrapped in a plastic bag, it’s automatically tossed into the contaminated pile.

“We encourage people to focus on recycling clean and empty bottles, cans, paper and cardboard,” Ms. Rivera said. “Other items should be kept out of the recycling bin. When in doubt, it is better to throw it out.”

Those innocent shopping bags – as well as Styrofoam – are big no-nos. A recent drive through one Surprise neighborhood found several recycling containers with items wrapped in plastic bags, boxes with food contamination and even a barbecue grill brush in one bin.

“Before there was a pretty good market for this stuff,” Mr. Remley said. “The Chinese decided if there’s a bottle of pop and you left a quarter of an ounce in there, there would be too much contamination.”

Innovation required

Some environmental groups are hoping the change in the recycling market will force innovation and ingenuity that hasn’t previously existed.

“There are local domestic options coming up with creative solutions that could create some viable markets,” Mr. Gent said. “But that might not be in the near future.”

Mayor Skip Hall said he is hoping it’s sooner rather than later.

“We need to really look at this and check around and see what other companies are doing,” Mr. Hall said.

The mayor recommended Mr. Gent check out Recycle 1, a Phoenix-based recycler.

“At this point we’re not leaving any stone unturned,” Mr. Gent said.

Waste Management, which owns and operates the Material Recovery Facility, 19401 W. Deer Valley Road, plans to continue its own innovation.

“We are focused on finding ways to improve our sorting operations and encourage cleaner recycling practices to improve the quality of the materials we produce and weather the current market climate, which we believe will eventually recover,” Mr. Rivera said.

The company recently installed new equipment at the Surprise Material Recovery Facility to improve sorting of clean paper, cardboard and plastic. Mr. Rivera said the investments are recovering good recyclable materials and improving the quality of the company’s baled products.

“Waste Management remains committed to growing the recycling industry and supporting community recycling programs,” Ms. Rivera said. “We are in the recycling business for the long haul.”

Whether it’s with Waste Management or another company down the road, Mr. Remley said he thinks curbside recycling won’t be leaving Surprise.

“I see it is a transition period more than anything else,” Mr. Remley said. “We were taking the route of least resistance. Now, we’re innovating as a country, and we’re going to be able to handle our own recycling.”

Rate Increases

Thanks to the Great Recession a decade ago, the Surprise City Council consistently voted over the last few years to keep the solid waste rates the same until this year.

It’s still among the lowest among the West Valley even with the increase.

“We didn’t raise our rates for about 10 years and then the last couple of years we’ve been running at a deficit,” Mr. Remley said. “The bottom line we were forced into the position of having to increase it.”

The city doesn’t deal with just recycling challenges, but a growing city means more trash in general.

“Anecdotally, we have a lot more trash than we’ve had in the past,” Mr. Gent said. “So, that’s one indication that the [U.S.] Census might show a population growth [in 2020].”

The growth also means associated costs with those pickups – more curbside bins and additional garbage trucks.

Mr. Remley said each trash container the city disperses to homes costs $130. In the mid-‘00s when the city saw its biggest population boom, a big chunk of public works money went to supplying those cans.

Many of them are at the point where they need to be replaced at the same time. The same goes for several trucks the city was forced to buy at one time.

“There are a lot of capital replacements that have to be done as well just to maintain the same level of service that we have,” Mr. Remley said.

Fortunately, the city was able to save some money from salaries thanks to a successful Spring Hazardous Waste pilot program in April. For the first time the city picked up the waste from resident homes instead of hosting a big dropoff event at a centralized location.

“It is the city’s intent to continue with the new hazardous waste service approach,” Mr. Lowe said. “We believe it is an improvement over past practices.”

The city is also continuing to offer bulk pickup to residents, which Mr. Remley calls one of the best-kept secrets in Surprise.

“Most people assume it’s not free,” Mr. Remley said. “When I tell them, they say, ‘Holy cow, I’m going to get my junk out there.’”

All residents have to do is call for an appointment and the city will come out and haul off bulk items for free once a quarter. Acceptable bulk trash items include household items, yard debris, or appliances.

However, dirt, rocks, concrete, concrete blocks, bricks, roofing materials, batteries or hazardous materials are not included in the bulk pickups.

“To our knowledge, there was never a time when Surprise charged a separate fee for bulk trash collection,” Mr. Lowe said.

Residents in El Mirage used to get the service for free as well, but the City Council there voted in May to add on a $25 charge.

To schedule a bulk trash appointment in Surprise, call 623-222-1900.

For those who have recycling materials to drop off, the city has two locations for that – the AZ TechCelerator, 12425 W. Bell Road; and the Public Works Yard, 13430 W. Westgate Drive.

Curbside recycling information for the city is at

Editor’s note: Jason Stone can be reached at 623-445-2805, on email at or on Twitter at @thestonecave. Visit


  • Most Glass: Glass accepted with no color restrictions (except cookware, construction glass, mirrors and car windshields).
  • Paper: Newspapers and ad inserts, magazines, catalogs, phone books, white paper, paper bags, junk mail, envelopes and any other clean dry paper.
  • Cardboard: Empty food boxes like cake, cracker and cereal boxes (without plastic insert), milk and OJ cartons, paper towel tubes, broken down large boxes.
  • Food and beverage cans: Aluminum beverage cans and steel cans like soup, pet food, tuna, fruit and vegetable.
  • Empty aerosol cans: Shaving cream, deodorant and cooking spray.
  • Plastics: Any #1 through #7 plastic container.


  • Styrofoam: Food containers, cups, plates, egg cartons, packing material and peanuts.
  • Some glass: Cookware, car windshields, mirrors or construction glass.
  • Garbage: Diapers, air or furnace filters, pet waste, food, garden hoses, etc.
  • Yard waste: Grass, rocks, leaves, branches.
  • Construction materials: Cement, wood, shingles, drywall, construction glass.
  • Plastic bags
  • Motor oil containers
  • Shrink wrap
  • Clothing or shoes
  • Automotive parts, car tires or batteries
  • Appliances or electronics

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