Cities across the country are examining methods to cut back, or even eliminate, recycling programs to save money, even though industry experts say costs could be cut by just encouraging residents to be more responsible.
Recycling costs are rising—in some cases even doubling—in communities across the United States. This is coupled with less demand for recycled materials internationally and lower oil prices driving down the costs of producing new materials. Yet industry experts say enough demand still exists to fund recycling. The problem instead is that municipalities and residents inject too much garbage into the recycling stream, clogging sorting facilities and requiring more time and labor to remove.
“We’re seeing some local governments are evaluating their recycling operations, and a handful of them are moving toward making cuts to respond to some of the cost pressures,” says David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America. “The problem is, they’re unknowingly causing the increases by allowing residents to clog up the recycled waste stream with non-recyclable components.”
By and large Americans support recycling efforts, but as the rules have changed in terms of what can and can’t be recycled and the implementation of single stream systems leads to the the wrong materials ending up in the stream.
“It’s really more important for the individual customer to keep out contaminants,” Biderman says. “The processing facilities are seeing a substantial amount of non-recycling waste thrown in, or with waste resident, and it costs time to remove that material—thus causing facilities to charge the haulers more. Those rates get passed on to the cities.”
Curt Bucey, an executive vice president at glass recycling firm Strategic Materials Inc., says he couldn’t agree more. Municipalities are raising rates and blaming high costs to haul away glass, but Bucey says the market for glass is great—it’s that it’s not being collected properly.
“Ten years ago, when people were more careful about sorting, we’d get 98 percent usable glass,” he says. “Today, because people just throw whatever they want into their single bin, we’re at about 50 percent. There’s no care at the curb, and that goes our facilities and it takes time to remove the contamination—or we just tell the haulers we can’t pay for as much as we used to, which makes their costs go up.”
Haulers were able to balance the glass cost increases due to high demand and returns from other materials such as cardboard, paper and plastics. China, a former big customer for cardboard, pulled back as their economy sputtered, and lower oil prices tanked high prices for plastics. Chaz Miller, director of policy for the National Waste and Recycling Association, says when the cycle is down, the sorting issues at the processing facilities have a higher impact on costs.
“It’s not like the costs of collection have increased, it’s the market and availability of some materials, and the processing,” Miller says. “If you remember, we started years ago with a strong demand for newspapers. There’s still that demand, but there’s not nearly as much newspaper available due to cutbacks in that industry. Also, some of the processing facilities were made in that early era, and were designed to handle mostly newspaper. If they’re designed to handle 75 percent newspaper and are not getting only 15 percent, with new items such as plastic that they don’t have specs for—their systems just aren’t designed to handle that.”
Bucey says one solution is contractual and haulers and cities need to address these challenges when creating waste removal bids. Haulers need to be upfront with municipalities about possible increases if glass is not kept separate, or free of contamination, he says. Another solution is to then create better educational materials to encourage residents to ensure separation of their waste.
Some larger cities do have sophisticated systems set up to warn residents when they are placing ordinary garbage in with their recycled materials. Chicago, which uses the popular blue bins for recycling, tries to communicate bad recycling choices to its residents by a sticker system. If a waste hauler sees non-recyclable material in a resident’s bin, the hauler will place an orange warning sticker on the bin, letting the resident know that the bin’s contents that day were likely not recycled.
About 28,000 residential households reportedly received warnings in 2014. Minneapolis residents receive similar “educational tag” stickers—though the city does have a strong educational program for what is and is not allowed in their blue bins. However, as with most municipal warning programs, there doesn’t seem to be any financial penalties for violating recycling rules.