Changing markets and confusion over what can be thrown in recycling bins has forced some communities to rethink or even suspend their recycling programs. But many more recycling programs are working well, experts say.
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The difference is partly based on which methods are being used for collection and processing.
Are you sorting paper from plastic at the start, for instance, or tossing it all in one bin? Are you certain the items going into the bin are the ones your recycler can accept? How up to date is the processing facility in your area?
"Some programs are hurting and need to adjust, particularly in the residential stream. But the majority of programs are working successfully and continuing to grow," says Robin Wiener, president of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. The non-profit trade association represents more than 1,300 companies that make, process, sell or consume scrap commodities, including metals, paper, electronics, plastics, glass and textiles.
Success or failure seems partly linked to whether recyclables are going into one mixed curbside bin for pickup (single-stream recycling) or is divided by residents into separate bins (multi-stream recycling).
Single-stream was adopted by many communities and companies because it costs less to haul. But creating one big pool of recyclables creates more difficulty later, when they must be sorted out. In addition, experts say people tend to be sloppier about what they put in a single, combined bin. That produces a lower grade end product.
Multi-stream tends to produce a less-contaminated, thus more valuable, end product.
For the past two decades, it hasn't mattered so much because China and a few other countries were buying large quantities of low-grade, single-stream recyclables, which cost them less and could be sorted out using inexpensive labor there.
All that changed in January 2018, when China stopped accepting lower-grade recyclables. That left many communities in the U.S. without a market for the low-grade, mixed recyclables they were producing.
"A total of $5.6 billion of scrap a year was going to China before the policy change," says Wiener. In 2018, that number dropped precipitously to $3.5 billion, with most of the loss in low-grade materials. It takes time to find another home for that volume of materials, she says.
In some cases, says Dylan de Thomas of The Recycling Partnership, an industry-sponsored non-profit dedicated to transforming the recycling system in the United States, the problem is a combination of contamination and macroeconomics.
"In March of 2017, mixed paper was trading at almost $90 a ton. Now it's worth roughly zero. Almost all the recycled paper on the West Coast was going to China," he says.
Despite the challenges of finding new markets, he says his organization has identified only 31 programs across the country that have suspended their recycling programs. Its data base includes 2,000 of the estimated 10,000 recycling programs across the country, he says.
Sorting recyclables at the front end turns out to make more sense for many communities, and the market for higher grade, pre-sorted recyclables — both domestically and with big international players like China — remains strong, experts say.
Areas where single-stream recycling continues to thrive tend to be those with a series of good practices to help ensure a less contaminated recycling stream. They also tend to be areas with access to advanced sorting and processing technologies, Wiener says.
Of course, tweaking a recycling program is easier said than done. Some cities and towns have had to limit the types of recycled material they accept and accept cost increases.
A lot depends on educating the public, says Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America, a non-profit that pushes for clear, standardized labels on recycling bins.
"There are certain materials that manufacturers want to reuse, but the public is confused about what is recyclable and which bin it should go in, so there's too much garbage ending up in recycling bins," she says.
Standardized labels, like those developed by Recycle Across America, are an important tool to help improve recycling, Wiener says.
But Heidi Herzberg, mayor of Deltona, Florida, which suspended its recycling program because it had become too expensive and ineffective, says it's more complicated than that. While part of the problem was that almost 40 percent of what people were putting in bins shouldn't have been there — like Christmas lights and greasy pizza boxes — there also turned out to be no market in her area for glass or certain types of plastics, she said.
"They say 'reduce, reuse, recycle,' but people have been skipping straight to recycling in order to feel better," she said. Her community was facing a $25,000 a month increase, she said, and much of the collected material was ending up in landfills anyway.
"It's a reality check, and it's very emotional."
Environmentalists agree that producing less waste in the first place is preferable to even the best recycling programs.
"We need to figure out how to reduce and reuse, not just how to recycle," said Herzberg.