Glass, aluminum, cardboard—where does it all go? The answer isn’t clear. The global market for recyclables is crashing. Now communities must choose whether they’ll continue recycling—or send bottles, cans, and plastics to the landfill instead.
Recycling was once a moneymaker for cities. Processing plants paid for certain kinds of trash. The plants would turn around and sell those squished boxes and empty jugs to companies that would make everything from clothing to countertops from recycled materials.
Now “there’s no market,” says Ben Harvey, president of a sorting facility in Massachusetts. Harvey claims 75 percent of what goes through his plant is worth nothing—or less than nothing. Huh? Yep, some companies must pay to unload what’s collected as “recycling.”
“A year ago, a bale of mixed paper was worth about $100 per ton; today we have to pay about $15 to get rid of it,” says Richard Coupland, a recycling company vice president. “Smaller recycling companies aren’t able to stay in business,” he adds.
The problem stems mostly from a policy shift by the world’s leading recyclables buyer, China. This year, the country passed an anti-pollution program. China won’t take waste paper, metals, or plastic unless it’s 99.5 percent pure. U.S. recycling processors can’t reach that standard. They churn out bales of paper or plastic that are, at best, 97 percent free of contaminants such as foam cups and food waste.
Sloppy recycling is another part of the problem. In recycling’s early days, people washed bottles and cans. They sorted paper, plastic, glass, and metal into separate bins. Now there’s “single-stream” recycling. Everything gets tossed into one bin. Customers like single-stream. But too often, items don’t ever get separated. Plastic bags tangle machinery or taint bales of paper. Spilled ketchup and greasy pizza boxes turn otherwise marketable material into garbage.
Non-recyclables like garden hoses and picnic coolers end up in the mix too. Workers have to separate those items and truck them to a landfill. The extra work adds to overall costs.
In some places, recycling has become so expensive that plants must shut down completely. That leaves communities no choice but to dump or burn recyclables.
What’s the solution? Some companies hope to educate citizens about what belongs in the recycling bin. But going forward, cities will probably need to pay for the cost of collecting and sorting recyclables. That means more taxes from citizens. Coupland says, “This is the new normal. The model no longer funds itself.”