Recycling, for decades an almost reflexive effort by American households and businesses to reduce waste and help the environment, is collapsing in many parts of the country.
Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it.
Those are just three of the hundreds of towns and cities across the country that have canceled recycling programs, limited the types of material they accepted or agreed to huge price increases.
“We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now,” said Fiona Ma, the treasurer of California, where recycling costs have increased in some cities.
China is laying down the law on their end and saying we’re not going to take recycling that’s contaminated.”
This means recycling “that has plastic bags or food waste in it — anything other than the actual product that’s being recycled.” A large amount of plastic products are being rejected because they have not been washed properly by people throwing them out.
“The reality is that too often in New Jersey we wish-cycle, we throw things in the recycling bin that we wish could be recycled that actually can’t be,” he said.
He noted this is the worst kind of nightmare a recycling company can face.
“Because it means they need to sort out the items that truly can be recycled and the ones that can’t, and that takes time and money.”