The State of Recycling

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A lot has been said about the state of recycling and the recycling industry over the past two years.

Some communities in the Pittsburgh area (and nationwide) have greatly reduced the amount of items that are being accepted for recycling — eliminating products such as all plastics except for #1 and #2, and glass.

This is due not to indifference to the environment, but out of necessity.

When single-stream recycling (as in, all recyclable materials go in the same bin and are separated at the processing plant) first came about roughly 20 years ago, the processing and recovery plants needed vast quantities of items to make money to operate. This lead to catchphrases such as “When in doubt, recycle it” being popular. It also has led to what some term “wishcycling” — throwing stuff out in recycling bins hoping that they are recyclable.

In large part due to this, nearly 25 percent of items in recycling containers in the region is made up of what the industry calls “contamination” or “residue” — items that do not belong in the recycling stream (plastic bags, pizza boxes, lower-quality plastics, items contaminated with food or grease). The presence of this contamination effectively has led to the bottom dropping out of the recycling industry. Stories abound of buyers forcing processors to take back contaminated materials (at the processor’s expense) and of loads of recyclables going to the landfill due to excess residue.

China (who previously bought large amounts of recyclables from U.S. processors) has banned the import of different types of recyclable materials and has introduced stringent contamination standards. Meanwhile, the Chinese have been working hard to increase the amount of recyclables they recover domestically — suggesting that these policies will be long-term.

Going along with this, the cost of processing recyclables is going up (since plants are hiring new employees and slowing down their lines in an effort to reduce contamination), the cost of transporting is going up (there are fewer people interested in being commercial drivers, and a new federal Electronic Logging Device law has lowered the number hours drivers are driving) and the cost of shipping is going up (shipping to China was inexpensive because the U.S. imports so much stuff from there and it was simple to send recovered commodities back on boats returning to China).

Additionally, the value of recovered materials has helped lead to these changes.

At single-stream processing plants, glass is separated out from other materials and crushed up along with any labels on the glass. The value of this type of glass is very low. Plastics #3 through #7 are hard to process and market. On the other hand, plastics #1 and #2 are amongst the most valuable recovered materials (along with aluminum/tin cans).

Long-story-short, the remaining markets for recovered recyclables are looking for high-quality materials that they actually can use.

Here in McCandless, Waste Management will continue to accept plastics #3, 4, 5, and 7, as well as glass for the foreseeable future. Although there may be concerns about these items being separated at the recycling plant and sent to a landfill, Waste Management has assured us that they are taking the effort to properly market these difficult-to-market items (often at their financial loss) so as to honor the contract the Town has with them. The Town’s contract with Waste Management expires December 31, 2021. If the market does not change by then, it is almost a certainty that a new contract with a waste hauler (whether Waste Management or not) will eliminate these items from the recycling program.

Although our recycling program is not changing right now, residents can assist in reducing contamination as much as possible and help the market.

From our end, we can work to make sure we are providing materials — clean and dry bottles, jugs, cans and cardboard (preferably flattened and compacted, especially now that so many people frequently are ordering items online) — that easily can be processed and put to market.

As always, items such as food-contaminated cardboard (i.e., pizza boxes), Styrofoam and plastic bags should not be disposed of in recycling bins or recycling dumpsters.