What Congress Learned from West Wendover

This week, I had the opportunity to represent my city, West Wendover, Nevada, before the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. As the Mayor of West Wendover and President of the Nevada League of Cities and Municipalities, I was asked to share the Nevadan experience, opportunities and challenges around strengthening community recycling programs, improving local programs, upgrading infrastructure and protecting the environment. I wanted to share with you what I told Congress and hopefully what they learned from West Wendover, and cities, towns and villages just like my community.

Right now, in America, there is an opportunity for public, private and nonprofit sectors to rethink and reimagine recycling. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, it’s important to celebrate what local governments have accomplished over the years—a national recycling and composting rate for municipal solid waste of 35%.

But China’s National Sword Policy, enacted in Jan. 2018, upended the recycling market with restrictions on the importation of most plastics and other materials. Until 2018, China handled roughly half of the world’s recyclable waste since 1980. By 2016, the U.S. exported 16 million tons of material worth $5.2 billion, and half went to China alone. Without China purchasing materials in the global recycling market, the value of these commodities plummeted. Many local governments have found their service model under water.

The challenges today come down to contamination in our recycled materials, which increases cost, damages equipment and reduces the quality of the material – potentially making it completely unrecyclable.

These costs are forcing local governments, private haulers and facility operators to reevaluate their operations and policies in order to maintain viable municipal materials management systems. Many small, rural communities, like West Wendover, do not have recycling programs, which is largely due to the cost of establishing and maintaining programs in a way that makes economic sense for residents, businesses and communities.

To restart a recycling program in West Wendover – which the city cut in 2012 due to financial and sorting challenges – costs upwards of $1 million. We have explored options contracting with recycling companies, but again, costs become a major barrier for it to make economic sense for those companies. Plus, the city would pay a premium for the materials to be transported over 100 miles to the Salt Lake City area for processing. Even if this was a feasible option for our community, it would remain difficult to find a partner in the current market environment.

The majority of cities, towns and villages across the country—including those in Nevada—are treading water and holding out for a change in the market. They are redirecting general funds, imposing temporary surcharges, and engaging in public education campaigns to raise awareness of the proper way to recycle.

  • Carson City instituted mandatory curbside pickup in July 2019 and saw their recycling numbers double.
  • The City of Henderson is exploring education and outreach efforts to improve recycling quality in hopes of avoiding a surcharge on residents and businesses.
  • Las Vegas recently approved a 74 cents per month rate increase.
  • In Reno, glass is no longer being recycled and only plastics #1 and #2 are being recycled, with other plastic going to the landfill.

While at least a few dozen local recycling programs have shut down, other larger communities remain committed to zero-waste goals as part of their overall climate action or sustainability plans.

NLC’s municipal action guide, Rethinking Recycling: How Cities Can Adapt to Evolving Markets, highlights a few communities that are continuing to embrace robust recycling programs and provides recommendations for local governments to boost the resilience of local recycling systems and achieve long-term sustainable waste management goals.

At NLC, we support efforts like the National Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System and Winning on Reducing Food Waste Federal Interagency Strategy – but we know these are not sufficient to manage waste in a manner that protects long-term public health and environmental sustainability.

And so, while solid waste management is a local issue, the federal government is an important partner. Cities, towns and villages across the country urge the federal government to develop a national policy that includes source reduction, volume reduction and resource recovery.

NLC supports House and Senate legislation to help local governments improve recycling infrastructure, develop recycling programs, and build community awareness. Working collaboratively, we can improve, expand and reimagine our communities’ recycling and waste management efforts.

CoronaAbout the Author: Daniel Corona was elected Mayor of West Wendover, Nevada in 2016 becoming the youngest mayor in the State of Nevada’s history. Mayor Corona is also the first LGTBQ individual and Latino to serve as Mayor of West Wendover. Mayor Corona was inspired to run after meeting with voters in his neighborhood who were frustrated in the lack of transparency and access within City Hall. As mayor, he has focused on economic development, housing and healthcare in order to ensure that West Wendover is a city where opportunity isn’t just a tagline but a reality. Mayor Corona serves on the State of Nevada Aging Commission, as President of the Nevada League of Cities and Municipalities, the Elko County Debt Management Commission, and as a member of Governor Steve Sisolak’s transition committee.