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Is Recycling Broken?

To survive and prosper, local recycling efforts are forging ways to update, upgrade and educate.

Crushed up coke can against a white background
In 2014, six months after the residents of Lowell, Mass., received new 96-gallon recycling carts, Gunther Wellenstein got a “nastygram.” The letter to the city’s recycling coordinator came from the recycling contractor, Waste Management. It let Wellenstein know that contaminated -- that is, unrecyclable -- items were making their way into the carts.

Wellenstein was incredulous. He got in his car and drove around, stopping every now and then to get out, lift the lid of a recycling cart and inspect what was in it. “Lo and behold,” he says, “there was quite a bit of stuff that I guess people hoped could be recycled.” 
What he found ranged from the mundane -- plastic forks, metal coat hangers, trash bags and even food waste -- to the outrageous -- diapers, syringes, appliances, bowling balls, doggie beds. He even found a cart full of leaves. “It was like people were saying, ‘Well, my trash can is full, but I’ve got room over here in the recycling cart.’”

Understandably, Waste Management wanted Wellenstein to address the problem. The syringes, bowling balls and other unrecyclable items were causing havoc at its recycling facility. A metal pry bar, for instance, got stuck on one of the conveyor belts and split it length-wise, shutting the building down for two days and costing the company upwards of $50,000. But the mundane things were also costly. “The first thing that comes off the line at the facility by hand is plastic bags, regardless of what’s in them,” says Wellenstein. “They automatically get thrown into the trash, and we get charged [for Waste Management] to process it and take it to the incinerator.”

Those unanticipated costs are among the primary reasons Wellenstein tapped a state grant to reach out and educate Lowell residents about what can and cannot be recycled. Wellenstein also partnered with the Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit that works with governments to improve recycling programs, to audit two collection routes of 400 homes. Before Wellenstein and his staff fanned out to inspect carts on the routes, the city mailed multilingual postcards to those households that illustrated in full color which items were acceptable and which were not. For the day of the audit, the team was armed with “OOPS” cards. If the team found a cart with nonrecyclable items, they would tag it and it wouldn’t be emptied. 

Before the outreach effort, the two routes had a contamination level of about 30 percent. After the effort, which spanned about 16 weeks, the level fell to 20 percent. “It’s still not ideal,” says Wellenstein, “but we could tell that in that zone of 400 households, we made a difference.” Most of the time, Wellenstein reports, it only took one tag for folks to be more careful about what they recycled. Only a fraction of them needed a second or third notification.

Lowell is far from alone in running education campaigns to decrease recycling contamination. For example, last year, Elgin, Ill., and Waste Management wrapped up a “Recycle Often, Recycle Right” campaign to instill key consumer behaviors: Recycle all empty bottles, cans, paper and cardboard; keep food, liquids and plastic bags out. Residents got a red tag on their recycling bins when they threw away nonrecycables and green tags when they stopped doing it. While it varied by neighborhood, contamination dropped between 21 percent and 41 percent. A similar program was also run in communities in California and Colorado.  

People on all sides of recycling agree that contamination is a major problem. “There is a lack of consistency with how communities educate about curbside recycling programs, leading to confusion and frustration regarding understanding what is recyclable and where and how to find program information,” wrote the authors of The 2016 State of Curbside Report, which was prepared by the Recycling Partnership for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Many communities do not provide easy-to-access and easy-to-understand recycling-related information.”

This frustration has led recyclers to begin openly questioning the viability of recycling programs nationwide. They argue that residents don’t know what they can and can’t recycle and that manufacturers are constantly changing the materials in which they package their products, forcing costly upgrades to recycling facilities. They also note that there’s no viable market for some recyclables, like glass, and that recycling contracts with cities don’t reflect economic realities.

Two men talk among recycling bins

Lowell's Gunther Wellenstein talks with his team after tagging a cart with an "OOPS" card. (The Recycling Project)

These challenges have led to an essential question: Is recycling in our cities broken?

Nationwide, recycling rates have hovered around 35 percent for the last five years, according to the EPA. “That’s a pretty low number,” says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “I don’t know if I would go so far as to say ‘broken,’ but there are some definite challenges to getting those numbers up.”

One of those challenges arose as a result of cities trying to make recycling easier. Just a decade or two ago, residents sorted their recyclables for curbside pickup. But in order to increase household recycling rates, cities moved to “single-stream” recycling: One bin for everything -- newspapers, glass, aluminum, tin, plastic and cardboard. Compliance is easier for residents and, since the city only needs one truck to pick up everything, it saves money. But the downside is that someone eventually does have to sort out the paper from the cardboard and the glass and cans from the plastic. It makes the process more expensive because now instead of just one household sorting it out, employees at a waste facility and big, costly machines do it. It also leads to more contamination and a decrease in the quality of the materials recovered. That, in turn, matters to the people who buy bales of recycled material and turn it into new products.

Another challenge is that the materials manufacturers are using are becoming more complex. “We are creating packages that are hard to recycle,” Hoover says. 

Take a juice carton. Five years ago that carton was made of one kind of plastic or paper. Today, it’s typically made with two or more types of plastic, an aluminum layer and a paper layer all fused together with adhesive. “It makes a great lightweight, non-breakable, often stable package,” Hoover says, “but what it does on the recycling end is kind of stymie the recycling process.” It’s not only hard to separate out the different levels of packaging, but it’s also expensive to get the machinery that does the separating. Even then, not every piece is recyclable. 

These increasingly complex materials are costing waste companies millions of dollars. Richard Coupland, vice president of municipal sales for Republic Services, notes that five years ago, the largest fraction of what his company was selling was newsprint. Today, he says, “there’s no supply and there’s no demand for it, and yet we bought huge pieces of equipment to extract newspaper and are still paying for those.”

Extraction aside, the value of recycled products has plummeted over the past five years. USA Today recently reported that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality found that “the average market value of a ton of mixed recyclable material arriving at a recovery facility in the state dropped from just over $180 in early 2011 to less than $80 at the end of 2015.” The fluctuating prices can be blamed, in part, on changing streams of materials. But another culprit has been the low price of oil, a key ingredient in the manufacture of plastics. As a result, plastic bottle manufacturers are finding that it’s cheaper to produce new bottles rather than use reclaimed plastic. 

All of these factors have come together to upend the market for post-consumer goods. The changing materials are forcing recyclers to make costly upgrades to the machinery in their facilities. Meanwhile, the fluctuating value of recyclables is eating into their profits. “That’s the crux of the problem,” says Coupland. “People don’t appreciate how complicated the processing and changes in these material streams have become. There’s this assumption that [the cities are] just going to give us their recycling for free and we’re going to make money off of it.”

That’s why waste companies such as Republic Services and Waste Management want to change how they are paid. In some markets, they’ve restructured their contracts. In Houston, for example, the city and its contractor, Waste Management, moved to a fee-based model. “The processor wasn’t going to rely on the commodity price to cover its risk anymore,” says Harry Hayes, director of Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department. “They wanted a processing fee to cover their costs.”

It was a rude awakening for the city, says Hayes. It was the first time they ever had to pay for recycling. But it’s a change that is likely coming to all municipalities. For now, several cities are raising household recycling fees to offset the reduced value of recovered commodities. In March, the city council in Ocala, Fla., approved a rate increase for its recycling program. The city’s recycling processor, which sells off the scrap paper, plastic, aluminum and other materials it collects, has not been able to cover its costs to collect and process items. As a result, the city has had to back pay the company $450,000 annually to make up the difference.


A restructured contract wasn’t the only recycling surprise Houston got last year. Waste Management announced it would no longer pick up glass. Glass has always been problematic. In single-stream programs, it is virtually impossible to prevent it from breaking. It cracks apart when residents drop it in their bins or when it is thrown into the recycling truck or when it gets compacted or even when it gets dumped onto conveyor belts to be processed. Broken glass means that not as much gets recycled. What’s more, the shards can contaminate other recyclables, such as paper.

For this reason, several communities have recently dropped glass from curbside recycling programs. In Houston, the announcement was met with anger from some residents. That public pressure resulted in a partnership with the largest glass recycler in North America, Strategic Materials Inc. The company, which had relied on Houston’s curbside recycling glass, was also upset by the decision to eliminate glass from the city’s curbside bins. It was receiving about 1,000 tons a month of recycled glass from Waste Management, according to Curt Bucey, executive vice president of Strategic Materials. Without the curbside program, he figured that volume would shrink to 100 or 200 tons a month. 

To solve their mutual problem, the city and the company will set up 10 drop-off boxes throughout Houston. The solution may not be ideal -- collection of glass has dropped off by 75 percent -- but it’s a start, says Hayes. 

While cities continue to come up with unique ways to keep recycling programs going, there’s another player that could help streamline the process: producers of goods. Producer responsibility, as it’s called, is a tool used in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in Canada. It essentially says that the manufacturer of a product should be involved in the process of disposing of it. In the U.S., the burden of paying for recycling falls on taxpayers, cities and processors because the government has largely not required manufacturers to take responsibility for the disposal or recovery of what they make and sell. There are some notable exceptions: Producers have responsibility for hard-to-recycle materials, such as electronics, batteries, carpets, paint and other hazardous materials. “What we haven’t done,” NRDC’s Hoover says, “is try producer responsibility for those materials that are already collected in our municipal recycling system and shift that system so that it is financially and to some degree logistically managed by the producer.”

In Ontario, Canada, for example, officials are testing out producer responsibility with medical equipment. Prescriptions for injections, for instance, come with a return package. Similarly, here in the U.S., 25 states and the District of Columbia have electronic recycling laws that, in some cases, require manufacturers to collect and recycle their products.

Two men work in a recycling facility

Hard-to-recycle plastic bags are automatically thrown out at recycling facilities. (David Kidd)

In place of producer responsibility, some states and cities have tried bans on certain types of hard-to-recycle material. California, for instance, does not allow groceries to distribute single-use plastic bags, and the state is expected to follow in San Francisco’s steps and ban polystyrene, or Styrofoam, food containers. It’s not that plastic bags can’t be recycled. They simply require different processing equipment than many curbside recycling programs provide. And Styrofoam, made up mostly of air, isn’t worth the cost of recycling. “Manufacturers are constantly determining what’s going to end up in the landfill or not,” Hoover says. “They should hold some of the financial responsibility and some of the oversight so it’s not all landing in the city’s or taxpayer’s pocket.”

But laws mandating cooperation are hard to pass in today’s political climate. Arizona, Idaho and Missouri recently forbade localities from regulating the sale or use of plastic bags, including the imposition of any fees or taxes. That’s why people on all sides of the industry are stressing the need to step up efforts to educate the public about recycling. It’s the best way, they argue, to reduce contamination rates, which in turn will reduce costs for the processor. 

Indeed, education efforts are not only proliferating, but some states are also lending their localities a helping hand. Massachusetts, for instance, offers on its website a “Recycling IQ Kit,” which provides a step-by-step guide for localities on how to improve recycling. As Gunther Wellenstein did in Lowell, local officials are advised to identify what the specific problems are or what the top five problem materials are in the city’s recycling program, and to send out info cards to residents that break down what’s recyclable and what’s not. The city should follow up the mailer with a curbside audit in which feedback is provided to the homeowner either in person or by tagging bins. Finally and crucially, it should track and evaluate the results and report them to the state so it can build a database.

Public education can go even further. Hoover would like people to recognize that recycling, unlike garbage, has the potential to generate revenue for government even with all the challenges and changes underway. For one, recycling creates jobs compared to disposing of materials in landfills. “If we were able to get to a 75 percent recycling rate nationally,” she says, “we would create something like 1.5 million jobs, reduce pollution and save energy -- all the environmental benefits we haven’t even talked about.”

As of 2016, according to the Curbside Report, there’s a lot of work still to be done. Only 53 percent of the U.S. population has recycling automatically provided at their home. Of those who do, fewer than half are served by recycling carts, a collection mechanism long recognized as fundamental to maximizing collection opportunity and efficiency.

Hoover points to the effectiveness of a fully rounded program. In San Francisco, the recycling rate is closing in on 80 percent. The city has worked with the industry to deal with the current challenges. But it also has robust education programs, and everyone in the city -- especially multifamily buildings and businesses -- has easy access to recycling services. Materials that are difficult to recycle have been removed through bans and other programs. “Even with the existing challenges,” Hoover says, “San Francisco shows it’s possible to get to the point where you are doing way better than that national average of 35 percent.” 

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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