Why Our Recycling Crisis Began

The U.S. recycling industry is in crisis. Many material recovery facilities (MRFs) are limiting or discontinuing their recycling disposal contracts with counties and municipalities across New York and other states, giving them nowhere to put their recyclables. This situation is further exacerbated by improper recycling and limited producer responsibility for products that are the most difficult to deal with.

The first factor that lead to this crisis is China’s restrictions of recyclable imports. Most of the products recycled by American households are exported for disposal. A few years ago, China was the biggest importer of these recyclables, accounting for 45% of the world’s exported recyclables. This led to health and environmental problems in China due to poor methods of handling the mass amounts of imported low-quality, “contaminated” recyclables – a term used for recyclables that are damaged or altered by residues from other materials.  

China recently decided to limit imported recyclables and set higher standards on what they will accept. They will no longer take contaminated recyclables, which often appear in U.S exports.  As a result of China’s decisions, commodity prices for recycled materials have plummeted and recycling facilities have to spend more than they earn to collect, recover, and process recyclables.                                                                                                                                                                                             

Many recycling facilities across the state are no longer willing to accept recyclables from cities since the cost of removal far outweighs their profit.  For example, St. Lawrence County is facing a $127,000 budget shortfall due to the global drop in the recycling market. The cost for disposing of recyclables is now $30,000/month for the county, compared to $10,000/month before the change in Chinese policy.  

Recycling companies are raising the prices of their recycling disposal services all across the state, causing counties to either end their contracts or find ways to offset the new costs. Onondaga County is raising its tipping fee by 8%, an increase which private haulers will likely pass down to consumers. In Columbia County, residents who want to recycle will have to buy a $50 permit.  

Another factor in the recycling crisis is that many people improperly recycle. Many people “wish-cycle,” placing items like grease-stained pizza boxes, soiled napkins, or plastic bags in their recycling bin because they seem like items that should be recyclable when in fact they are not. When these items get mixed together with recyclable goods in the recycling stream, they can damage machines at MRFs and render everything they come into contact with worthless, meaning it all goes to a landfill. The contamination problem is exacerbated by single-stream recycling, in which paper, glass, metal, and plastic are all put in the same recycling bin. While this method increased rates of recycling across the U.S., it also increased rates of contamination.

A third factor is that there is little accountability for businesses who produce products using single-use plastics and disposable products. U.S. businesses aren’t typically held liable by extended producer responsibility laws, which require producers of a product to manage its eventual recycling, reuse, or disposal. These types of policies would give businesses the full responsibility for the lifetime of their products and their environmental impacts. Implementing extended producer responsibility laws would significantly reduce the burden of plastic waste on U.S recycling programs, as businesses would aid in funding and organizing the collection and disposal of recyclable waste.

As the global market for recyclable remains dismal, the rising costs for recycling programs will continue to worsen. Stay tuned next week for our blog post on how we might solve the recycling crisis.

By: Alesha Bradford and John Day