"The U.S. recycling industry is breaking down.Interesting that the article mentions that few items still have value, including cans and corrugated cardboard. It reminds me of a 2015 New York Times article by John Tierney called The Reign of Recycling. Excerpt:
Prices for scrap paper and plastic have collapsed, leading local officials across the country to charge residents more to collect recyclables and send some to landfills. Used newspapers, cardboard boxes and plastic bottles are piling up at plants that can’t make a profit processing them for export or domestic markets.
“Recycling as we know it isn’t working,” said James Warner, chief executive of the Solid Waste Management Authority in Lancaster County, Pa. “There’s always been ups and downs in the market, but this is the biggest disruption that I can recall.”"
"As cities aggressively expanded recycling programs to keep more discarded household items out of landfills, the purity of U.S. scrap deteriorated as more trash infiltrated the recyclables. Discarded food, liquid-soaked paper and other contaminants recently accounted for as much as 20% of the material shipped to China, according to Waste Management Inc.’s estimates, double from five years ago.
The tedious and sometimes dangerous work of separating out that detritus at processing plants in China prompted officials there to slash the contaminants limit this year to 0.5%. China early this month suspended all imports of U.S. recycled materials until June 4, regardless of the quality. The recycling industry interpreted the move as part of the growing rift between the U.S. and China over trade policies and tariffs.
The changes have effectively cut off exports from the U.S., the world’s largest generator of scrap paper and plastic. Collectors, processors and the municipal governments that hire them are reconsidering what they will accept to recycle and how much homeowners will pay for that service. Many trash haulers and city agencies that paid for curbside collection by selling scrap said they are now losing money on almost every ton they handle."
"The waste-management authority in Lancaster County this spring more than doubled the charge per ton that residential trash collectors must pay to deposit recyclables at its transfer station, starting June 1. The higher cost is expected to be passed on to residents though a 3% increase in the fees that haulers charge households for trash collection and disposal."
"Mr. Warner may limit the recyclable items collected from Lancaster County’s 500,000 residents to those that have retained some value, such as cans and corrugated cardboard. He said mixed plastic isn’t worth processing."
"the more intensive sorting process takes too long to process scrap profitably."
"According to the E.P.A.’s estimates, virtually all the greenhouse benefits — more than 90 percent — come from just a few materials: paper, cardboard and metals like the aluminum in soda cans. That’s because recycling one ton of metal or paper saves about three tons of carbon dioxide, a much bigger payoff than the other materials analyzed by the E.P.A. Recycling one ton of plastic saves only slightly more than one ton of carbon dioxide. A ton of food saves a little less than a ton. For glass, you have to recycle three tons in order to get about one ton of greenhouse benefits. Worst of all is yard waste: it takes 20 tons of it to save a single ton of carbon dioxide.
Once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash — plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather — is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America’s carbon footprint.
As a business, recycling is on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends. For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. That’s why we can afford to buy so much more stuff than our ancestors could. As a labor-intensive activity, recycling is an increasingly expensive way to produce materials that are less and less valuable.Recyclers have tried to improve the economics by automating the sorting process, but they’ve been frustrated by politicians eager to increase recycling rates by adding new materials of little value. The more types of trash that are recycled, the more difficult it becomes to sort the valuable from the worthless.
In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead. That adds up to millions of extra dollars per year — about half the budget of the parks department — that New Yorkers are spending for the privilege of recycling. That money could buy far more valuable benefits, including more significant reductions in greenhouse emissions."
See also his 1996 article Recycling Is Garbage.