“Recycling has always cost money,” said Susan Collins of the National Recycling Coalition. With the exception of aluminum, she said, it now costs more to collect and process materials than they are worth in scrap value.
Said Collins: “In 2019, we have this unprecedented situation where the markets for different material types all declined at the same time.”
Also, our recycling rates as a nation have been flat for 15 years.
“We’re not recycling better than we did more than a decade ago,” said Adam Ortiz, director of Montgomery County’s Department of Environmental Protection.
And the contents of our recycling bins aren’t of the best quality. Too much of it is contaminated with food or stuff that can’t be recycled.
“The pizza box is a good example,” Ortiz said.
You shouldn’t just throw the entire Domino’s or Papa John’s box in the cardboard recycling. “Tear it in half,” he said. “Put the top part in the recycling and put the greasy part in the trash.”
Single-stream recycling — in which everything goes in the same bin — can suffer when shards of glass from broken bottles get stuck in cardboard fibers, making the paper less desirable.
It degrades the glass, too, which is why many jurisdictions have told residents not to include glass in their recycling bins but to put it in with the trash.
“The problem is that most of the glass going through most of the single-stream systems across the country is of poor quality and, therefore, harder to process and make into a profitable commodity for the waste management companies,” said Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute.
He said glassmakers actually want recycled glass — it’s known as cullet — but only if it’s the primo stuff.
“We’re hoping that communities will think out of the box in terms of alternative collection of glass to increase the amount of good-quality material in the glass recycling stream,” DeFife said.
That could include what seems like a step backward: asking citizens to take their glass to collection points.
“We’re not recycling as well as we should,” Ortiz said. “We have a lot of non-recyclables that get mixed in. Then there are a lot of disposable materials that seem recyclable but aren’t — like Styrofoam — that get mixed in. All of that degrades the quality of the commodity.”
It doesn’t help that manufacturers continue to package things in ways that make recycling difficult, combining paper with plastics and making it hard to recycle either.
Plus, Ortiz said, “There’s a lot of plastics that are not recyclable that are being used in consumer products.”
For example, those red disposable cups popular at keg parties shouldn’t go in with your plastic recycling. They’re made of No. 6 plastic, which is not easily recyclable. The same thing applies to those little plastic disposable bathroom cups. I have to tell My Lovely Wife that she can stop painstakingly picking them out of the trash.
On the plus side, some companies are stepping up their game. Improvements are being made at material recovery centers to better sort recycling. Some pulp mills are switching from virgin fiber processing to working with recycled fibers.
What can we do as individuals? Practice good recycling hygiene. Learn what’s recyclable and what isn’t. Visit your county or city’s Web page and see exactly what they want.
Just as importantly, reduce your overall consumption and reuse as much as you can, including shopping bags.
It can be hard to see the impact from such practices. And it’s easy to get discouraged. But I think there’s a value beyond what money a city or county gets from selling its plastic and glass — or is spending to dispose of it.
For me, each Wednesday is a weekly reminder that what I buy and use has an effect on the planet and that what may seem inconvenient — schlepping my plastic newspaper bags to the grocery store — is better for Earth.
There’s one other thing: While prices for many recyclable commodities have fallen, aluminum remains strong.
“When you buy beer or wine, buy it in a can,” Ortiz said.
I’ll drink to that — ideally with a reusable cup.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.