Local governments have mailed out brochures. They’ve held live Web chats. They’ve designed helpful magnets.
But D.C. area residents — like recyclers across the country — are still tossing a whole lot of stuff into their recycling bins that shouldn’t be there. And it costs so much to sort that — together with contamination and a changing market — it’s causing some cities and counties to lose money on recycling.
Now, some local officials are starting to acknowledge that it’s time to be smarter about recycling. That begins by being clearer with consumers about what should and shouldn’t go into the big blue bin.
In the past, “we had been telling people that, if they had any questions, when in doubt, put it into the recycling stream,” said Yon Lambert, the director of transportation and environmental services in Alexandria. “Now, we’re recognizing that making recycling work actually requires some recognition that it’s not as easy as we once communicated it to be.”
Not as easy — and not as lucrative.
Once a profitable business for cities and private employers, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise. The District, Baltimore and many counties in between are contributing millions annually to prop up one of the nation’s busiest facilities in Elkridge, Md. — but it is still losing money.
Almost every facility similiar to it in the country is running in the red. Waste Management and other recyclers say that more than 2,000 municipalities are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.
One of the main culprits is a fluctuating global market for plastic and aluminum that local authorities can do little to control. But another is the cost of sorting a multitude of materials that often arrive in a single truck, and another is the cost of contamination — when the value of a recyclable good, such as paper, goes down because too much other stuff is mashed up with it.
The realization that a lot isn’t always good has prompted debate about whether the big blue bins and the “single stream” systems employed in the District, Fairfax, Arlington and Prince George’s County are really all they’re cracked up to be.
One bin for all materials makes it easier for people to recycle, officials say. But it can also make the process more costly.
Several years ago, in the interest of encouraging more recycling, the District followed a pattern set by other cities across the United States and switched from dual-stream to single-stream.
“You get more recycled product than you do with a dual-stream,” said Tommy Wells, director of the D.C. Department of the Environment. “But the downside is that you get waste that can’t be recycled, and it’s more than you bargained for.”
Now it appears less certain that the big blue bin is the way to go. Or maybe the District, and other areas, just pushed the easy option too far.
When recycling bins were filling up because residents were tossing so much in them, the city doubled their size. Fines for placing recyclables in the trash also prompted private companies to err on the side of recycling.
The District’s Department of Public Works says it has worked to educate residents on what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable for the city’s recycling bins.
But the reality is that nearly everything is a go.
The Public Works Web site lists glass, plastic lawn furniture and dozens of other objects, big and small, as items that should go in the recycling bin. The only items the District officially says cannot go in the bin are plastic foam and pizza boxes.
Recycling during the past year has cost the District more than $1 million, after making a profit in 2011, in large part because the quality of recycled product has gone down because of contamination.
“If the blue bin becomes nothing but a trash bin, then we’re missing the point and missing an opportunity,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who sits on the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment.
“If our current recycling system isn’t working as well as it should, then we need to explore what changes we’re comfortable asking residents to make, and what changes in collections we can reasonably expect the agency to take on,” he said.
In some of the District’s neighboring counties, officials are feeling similar pressures.
Fairfax County, which netted an average $16 per ton of recyclables in 2011 and paid an average $38 per ton this year, is weighing the real benefit of a single-stream system.
“There’s a debate going on about that, and you can land anywhere on it,” said John Kellas, the director of operations for the county’s solid waste management department.
The cities of Alexandria and Arlington have also sent e-mails and brochures about smarter recycling practices.
The net monetary benefit of Alexandria’s recycling program dropped from a $150,000 profit in 2013 to a $4,000 deficit in April.
Arlington is still making a profit, but its revenue from recycling dropped from $608,454 in 2011 to $11,258 this year.
And in Prince George’s County, where contamination has also sent prices climbing — although officials didn’t disclose the cost — the county has decided that it “will no longer accept plastic bags/film of any color, size or shape in its recycling program,” starting on July 1, said Linda Lowe, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of the Environment.
Glass, too, has come under scrutiny. Every county and city recycling program in the region accepts it. And no sound evokes the arrival of the recycling truck quite like the crunching of shattering glass. Yet, officials agree that it has little value to recyclers. When it breaks, they say, it also tends to end up in landfills.
“As technology changes, we have to look down the road, we have to continue to evolve these policies,” Wells said. “Is it worth recycling glass? Glass is very heavy. It really contaminates the other recycling material.”
One bright spot on the map, as its local officials are eager to claim, might be Montgomery County, which still maintains a “dual-stream” system, and which, like Arlington, still churns out a profit.
Montgomery County officials say they also expect recycling revenue to grow next year, when the county-run facility begins sorting its paper waste, taking the task from a contractor.
“We have an extremely mature recycling program,” said Eileen Kao, who heads the waste reduction and recycling section of the county’s environmental protection department. The two-stream system makes for less contamination — better sales and less material diverted to landfills, she said. And it really isn’t much harder for residents than dealing with a single bin.
“A flick of the wrist,” she said, in describing the movement of tossing an item in the bin for paper and cardboard, or the bin for bottles, cans and containers.
She and other county officials said they believe Montgomery County could reach its 2020 goal of recycling 70 percent of its waste if the county starts composting food waste, too.
In the District, Wells said an “anaerobic digester” that would convert food waste into energy is about go online at the waste treatment center.
“The first, most important strategy is to reduce the amount of waste there is to begin with,” he said.
“Recycling is harm mitigation. So if there is an opportunity to reduce the cost of it, or even make some money off it, you want to do that. But you don’t recycle for the purpose of making money,” Wells said.