The idea behind community recycling has always been simple. Separate your paper, plastic and glass from the rest of your refuse, watch it get picked up curbside, and assume at least some of it will return to you later in the form of recycled goods.
The reality, as we continue to learn, is much more complex. Some plastics (bottles) are better than others (bags). Much of what goes into your recycling bin ends up in a landfill or an incinerator, far from a recycling center. And geoglobal politics involving formidable nations such as China and India have thrown the worldwide recycling market into disarray, damaging the market for America’s throwaways.
Caught in the middle are local communities and their taxpayers, who are finding recycling costly and inefficient. Municipalities across the country and across the region are beginning to question their commitment to the practice. And sadly, our own poor recycling practices and resistance to the elimination of products such as plastic bags are part of the problem. We’re costing ourselves money.
The New York Times reported on Sunday that Philadelphia, with a population of 1.5 million, now incinerates half the recycling it collects. Oregon, Ohio, a Toledo suburb, recently suspended its recycling program for two years. Deltona, Florida, a city of 91,000 people, has given up recycling altogether.
“We’re paying for something that we’re not really getting,” Marc-Antonie Cooper, Deltona’s assistant city manager, said shortly after the decision was made.
Similar decisions are playing out in town and city halls across the country and across the region this budget season. When the market for recyclables was robust, municipalities often made money in the form of rebates after trash haulers sold the paper, plastic and glass for a tidy sum. Now, with the world recycling market in chaos, haulers are charging more to pick up recyclables, and rebates are a thing of the past.
“Recycling has been dysfunctional for a long time,” Mitch Hedlund, executive director of the nonprofit Recycle Across America, told The Times. “But not many people really noticed when China was our dumping ground.”
For years, China took America’s excess recycling waste — to the tune of 13.2 million tons of scrap paper and 1.42 million tons of plastic in 2016. However, as American recycling expanded, it became dirtier. More nonrecyclables found their way into the curbside bins. Often, recyclable material was too dirty or fouled to be reclaimed. People continued to try to recycle plastic shopping bags, and even mixed hazardous waste in among the empty milk cartons and soda bottles.
So in 2018, China stopped importing two dozen types of recyclable waste. Thailand and India, two other major markets for America’s plastic, cardboard and scrap metal, followed suit. With American recycling facilities at capacity, and nowhere else to go, trash haulers have begun taking recyclables from the curbside bin to incinerators and landfills. And they’ve begun charging cities and towns more for the privilege.
All is not lost. The best way to turn the tide — and save taxpayer money — is to do a better job of recycling. Keep plastic shopping bags, batteries and dirty pizza boxes out of your bins. And accept that plastic bags are part of the problem. They are difficult to recycle in the best of circumstances, and they clog sorting machinery here and overseas — another good reason to support those cities and towns that have banned their use.
And, of course, it remains possible to reduce our use of paper and plastic in the first place. Many local coffee shops and restaurants have already switched their to-go containers from plastic foam to biodegradable material. Fewer people are drinking their water from single-use bottles. And sturdy totes are replacing single-use plastic bags at grocery store checkouts.
It’s a simple idea: If you don’t want to recycle to save the planet, you can still do it to save yourself money.