Feb 15, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The fraught future of recycling

Illustration of melting recycling bin
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

MANASSAS, Va. — The American recycling industry is in crisis — and cities are on the front lines.

The big picture: The economics undergirding the U.S. recycling system have fallen apart. Unable to absorb the extra cost, some cities are opting to kill recycling programs altogether — just as public concerns about climate change are ratcheting up.

  • China, the biggest buyer of U.S. recycled materials, has closed its doors. Before the ban, the U.S. was exporting around 70% of its waste to China.
  • Changing consumer behaviors have made the trash-sorting process more complex and expensive.

"The market for recycling has had a lot of shock," says Marian Chertow, a professor at Yale's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. "Cities are thinking, 'Hm, is this really worth it?'"

How it works: A major recycling center in the Washington, D.C. suburbs used to turn a healthy profit from processing recycled materials from a 50-mile radius. Now it's having to pay vendors to truck material away, and is re-negotiating decades-old contracts with cities at higher rates — and explaining to consumers why they suddenly have to pay for curbside pick-up.

What we're seeing: Axios paid a visit to the center operated by Republic Services in the heart of Prince William County. It operates up to 22 hours a day to process about 550 tons of thrown out paper, plastic, aluminum and glass delivered there daily.

  • Despite the heavy machinery and increased automation involved, the process is still extremely dependent on humans.
  • On each shift, 28 "sorters" sift through the material as it rolls down a series of fast-moving conveyer belts. The workers spot and pull out non-recyclable trash from the stream so fast that they look like card dealers in a game of blackjack.
  • Contamination is a huge problem. People throw surprising things — Christmas trees, old carpet, shoes, diapers and even cinder blocks — into their recycling bins.

Manassas is not alone. Several other cities are struggling to make recycling work.

What's needed: Cities have to renegotiate their contracts with recycling providers, many of which are 30 years old, to find a viable business model, said Richard Coupland, VP of Municipal Services for Republic Services.

  • That includes charging consumers for curbside pickup of recycled materials. Now that consumers are convinced of the environmental value of recycling programs, most are willing to pay for them.
  • And cities have to shift from collecting as much recycled material as possible to only the items that have a market. "If there's no one in your local area to buy and recycle glass, you spend more fuel and carbon trucking it somewhere that does — and the benefit to the planet falls apart," Coupland said.
"There’s not a silver bullet— it’s going to take a number of factors. Reducing the waste stream, reusing more, rethinking how we’re packaging things, and education. What we've learned is that you can never stop trying to educate the public."
— St. Petersburg, Florida, Mayor Rick Kriseman

What to watch: "There's a huge opportunity for innovation within recycling," Chertow says. Researchers are looking at developing robots that can more accurately and efficiently complete some of the tedious — and even dangerous — tasks within large facilities, such as sorting.

Go deeper: Our plastic planet

Go deeper