Cities Struggle to Keep Recycling

Workers sorting trash at a facility in Elkridge, MD   Photo: Ricky Carioti, The Washington Post

As we have reported, China has stopped accepting U.S. trash for recycling, which leaves cities in a bind and many have had to cut back or stop recycling altogether. According to The New York Times, hundreds of cities across the country have had to drastically alter their recycling programs or cancel their programs amid increasing turmoil in global scrap markets.   Fiona Ma, the Treasurer of the State of California, put it bluntly, telling The Times, “We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now.”  In a long story over the weekend, The Times reported that:

  • China stopped taking U.S. recycling because too much garbage was mixed in with recyclable materials like plastics and cardboard.
  • For a time India and Thailand took up the slack and accepted American trash but now they are also tightening up on what they will take.
  • With few options now available to municipalities, recycling middle-men have raised prices drastically, some charging four times as much as a year ago.

Domestic companies that handle trash collection, recycling, and landfills – such as Waste Management and Republic Services – are seeing a resurgence in their recycling businesses – charging their customers additional fees for commingled materials. But these large companies’ control over such a large part of the trash business is making municipalities nervous that they are being gouged. As a result, some cities are beginning to burn their recyclables and turn them into energy rather than put them in a landfill. Residents who live near the incinerators are wary of the environmental damage and others are calling for restricting the amount of plastic overall through greater controls on plastic bags, straws, and packaging.

Why This Matters: As a nation, we can do better on reducing plastic and increasing proper recycling — we need to have a renewed public-private partnership to deal with this growing problem, now that we can’t just dump it overseas. Municipal governments are trying to find answers but there should be more federal and state leadership — both setting standards and working with large companies that manufacture and use plastics to improve the prospects of reducing plastic and recycling throughout the entire supply chain. Coca-Cola has taken a small step in the right direction, as we reported on Friday, but they and other large corporations could do so much more.

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