Save the world. Stop recycling everything.

I rarely work on solid waste, but I’ve gotten some questions about this, and I know enough about it to have some opinions and ideas. So this post is more to lay those out, and less a formal report. No academic citations here!

The Washington Post has been writing about the state of recycling, both in terms of national trends and specifically in DC (perhaps prompted by the departure of Department of Public Works Director Bill Howland?). The articles highlight how the trend toward single-stream recycling has actually lowered the value of the recycled material.

Single-stream recycling is where you dump all your recyclables into one bin, smashing it down so it all fits, and haul it out to the curb where a truck comes and adds it to everybody else’s crushed stuff, then schleps it to a factory where machines try to separate it back out. In the process, the glass breaks and shards get stuck in the cardboard, yogurt you didn’t totally rinse out of that tub smears onto newspaper, etc. The machines hopefully also catch that clamshell that sure looks like highly recyclable #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin but is actually non-recyclable #6 polystyrene–because if inspectors find that #6 clamshell in the bale of #1, they’ll reject the whole bale.

Ideally we’d all separate our recyclables into different bins, depending on material. I remember as a kid going to the Walmart parking lot and putting recyclables into different igloo-shaped containers, including separate bins for brown, green, and clear glass. I did the same in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, as recently as five years ago. Keeping everything separated meant it was super easy to gather up, melt down, and turn it into new bottles.

For better or worse, local governments decided to make recycling collection curbside, and residents didn’t want to have a plethora of bins at home. Over the past 20 years, more municipalities have moved toward single-stream recycling at the behest of their residents. Recycling is an extremely popular public works service, so tax dollars are spent on expanding collection services, even to the point of mandated universal curbside recycling collection. Because everybody gets a recycling bin and weekly pickup, everyone gets to feel good about being an environmentalist! Sounds great, doesn’t it?

But there’s a pretty big catch that a growing number of municipalities are now recognizing.

As the contents of those big bins gets more contaminated, its monetary value drops significantly. Localities used to make a lot of money by selling their recycled materials on the commodities market; the profits more than offset the costs of collection. But localities aren’t making as much money anymore, to the point where cities around the country are spending more on collection than they are getting back in materials sales. Normally, a municipality would just reduce spending when a venture becomes a financial liability. But, politically, they can’t do that with recycling services that remain highly popular with the public. (Ocean City, Maryland, got rid of municipal recycling all together a few years back, sending every piece of residential solid waste to an incinerator. Residents are feeling guilty as they adjust, and groups that hold conferences at the convention center have started hiring private haulers just so they can provide recycling to attendees, lest they look bad.)

Before I started doing this trash advocacy thing full-time, I owned a design and marketing company. One of our clients was a suburban county in Ohio that desperately wanted to raise its recycling rate, from 11 to 15 percent. (One step at a time…) Through phone surveys and focus groups, we learned that the “sometimes-recyclers” felt good when they recycled, even though it was kind of a pain. (Those bins are heavy! And sometimes gross wet stuff leaks out of them!) They felt like they were doing something really good for the planet and for future generations. What elected official wants to take that away?

But these “sometimes-recyclers” also said that they recycle so they don’t feel guilty about not doing anything else that’s considered environmentally friendly: “It’s not like I’m going to buy a Prius, so I recycle.” This phenomenon has been found in other “virtuous acts”–people who use reusable bags while grocery shopping may also tend to buy more junk food. Think about similar ways you justify your own bad behavior. (My favorite is Liz Lemon having a cupcake because she planned to go to the gym later.)

The Ohio ad campaign ended up featuring real people saying they recycle because it’s “one thing” they can do for a better planet/future/community. The campaign probably did raise the participation rate, but who knows if the quality of the materials is any good or if people traded out another virtuous act to do so.

Summary: Recycling is a popular behavior, so cities push participation. But the tactics that drive participation lead to contamination. There are two major culprits to this contamination: people not knowing what is actually recyclable and glass.

All plastics are not created equal.

Scenario: you have an empty plastic container in the kitchen, flip it over, squint and see the tiny number inside the chasing arrows. (The chasing arrows make you think it’s recyclable but that was just a trick by the Society of the Plastics Industry. Fortunately they just changed the symbol to a simple triangle.) Maybe it’s a #5 tub. Does your city collect that? Maybe you kept the mailer you got four years ago or you have time to look it up online. (Probably not.)

In DC, you could look at the top of the new recycling cart you got in 2014. (Political maneuvering? Who knows.) Except the lid says you can recycle all plastics, #1-7. That’s actually not true. #3 (vinyl), #6 (polystyrene), and #7 (other) definitely shouldn’t go in the cart. For the other resins, it usually depends on the shape. Most public works officials will tell you to just put it in even if you aren’t sure. The problem with that advice is that you risk ending up with those contaminated–and devalued–bales. Maryland Environmental Services reports that their facilities have a residue rate of less than 10 percent (less than 10 percent of the stuff they get can’t be recycled), but that data probably requires more digging.

We learned in Ohio that giving people too much detailed information just confuses them and likely leads them to throw the stuff in the trash. But not enough info may mean an entire bale gets trashed. It’s a tough problem.

The glass is half empty.

Glass is heavy, so it costs a lot to collect and transport. But it breaks and gets mixed up, and it has fairly low value on the commodities market. On the other hand, it is infinitely recyclable, and recycled glass is still cheaper to make than new glass. Domestic glass manufacturers would much prefer to have a clean stream of glass they can recycle for new bottles, and the best way to do that is to keep it separate from everything else (and separated by color). This works great in states with bottle bills (beverage container deposits). Glass manufacturers would like to add factories in more states, but they need a good glass supply in the region. A bottle bill could do this, if we’re not inclined to go back to separated curbside collection. But then you’re going up against beverage companies and distributors that hate any idea that could put obstacles between customers and their 24-pack of Coke Zero.

A Maryland Senate committee held a summer briefing on a proposed bottle bill last week, and I was struck by how many of the opponents defensively insisted, “I recycle a lot! My bin is always overflowing!” I wondered how much of that was empty water bottles.

So what’s the answer? There probably is a perfect system that would collect every single piece of packaging that could be reused or recycled into something else. But when we’re dealing with the realities of humans, and local budgets, and the scale required to make the whole transportation and logistics system that is recycling work, it’s going to take some creative thinking, smart community education, and a lot of cooperation.

Ultimately, we don’t want any materials to go to waste; we want people to return as much as possible; we want those materials to net as much revenue as possible; and maybe we can also prevent it from getting loose into the environment as litter. Some of the basics from the existing toolbox could get us close:
– container deposit (get the glass out!)
– bring back a separate cart for paper
– clarify what should go into recycling bins, convey it clearly, and conduct extensive public outreach to make sure people understand
– urge people to buy less packaging overall and urge manufacturers to make packaging that is recyclable (no pouches!)

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