Your Recyclables Are Going to the Dump

Rising rates of contamination, among other problems, have left material processing facilities with no willing buyers.


Baltimore County residents have had their perceptions about recycling shattered. In early February, news broke that for the last seven years, the county has been trashing the glass it collects as part of the county recycling program.

"There are numerous issues with glass recycling, including increased presence of shredded paper in recycling streams which contaminates materials and is difficult to separate from broken glass fragments, in addition to other limitations on providing quality material," a county spokesperson told The Baltimore Sun.

Glass recycling reportedly stopped in 2013, the same year the county opened a $23 million single-stream recycling facility, according to the Sun. Single-stream recycling refers to the practice of letting people put all their recyclables into one bin, then sorting it at processing facilities. It's more convenient for consumers than asking them to place their papers, plastics, and glass items in separate curbside containers.

Baltimore County fully adopted single-streaming by October 2010, part of a growing trend among municipalities trying to boost recycling rates. A study from the American Forest & Paper Association found that the population covered by a single-stream recycling service that included glass grew from 22 percent in 2005 to 73 percent in 2014. The thinking was that if you make recycling easier, more people will do it.

The trouble is that placing everything in the same bin increases the chances of contamination. Non-compatible materials get mixed together or coated with food waste. So a good deal of the glass isn't pure enough to ground down and ship to glass manufacturers. Chemical & Engineering News notes that only 40 percent of glass collected by single-stream services ends up being recycled into new products, compared to 90 percent of glass in multi-stream collection systems.

The cost of transporting heavy glass from recycling centers to glass manufacturers is also often prohibitively high, making the production of new, nonrecycled glass more economical.

Regardless of the material in question, the American recycling industry has been going through a crisis over the last several years. Rising rates of contamination and the effective closure of a major export market in China, which stopped accepting most American plastics in 2018, have left material processing facilities with no willing buyers. Many of the recyclables that are collected end up in landfills or incinerators.

That's exactly what's been happening to Baltimore County's glass. Yet county officials are still encouraging residents to recycle the stuff, fearful that people will fall out of the recycling habit. Ritual is apparently more important than reuse.

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  1. And yet there is a vast amount of land fill space. Once there full they cover, reclaim and you never no it was there. Another example of trying to solve a problem that is all ready solved. I always laugh at the types that want to get rid of plastic writing using their phone or lap top with plastic and rare earth minerals that have to be mined. And of course their ‘organic food’ at Whole Food in plastic containers.

    1. Is your constant misuse of homonyms evidence of terrible spelling skills or some sort of weird stylistic tic?

      1. I blame autocorrect.

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      3. Kiss my ass, idiot. I was up at 3 to go to work.

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  2. 90% of 22% is 19.8%. 40% of 73% is 29.2%. So the single streaming increased the flow of usable recyclable glass by 10%. If the recycling services are having trouble selling their wares, its not because of availability. It’s because recycling doesn’t make a lot of sense outside of a very tight closed system or very specific situations.

    1. Not sure why you are multiplying those percentages. The 22% is the single-stream recycling coverage in 2005, not the percentage of those covered by multi-stream recycling. The 90% is the amount of glass recycled in multi-stream recycling operations. These two are not related so can’t be meaningfully multiplied.

  3. Speaking of recycling… what kind of hippie hell do we find ourselves in nowadays? I mean, I thought after stockpiling my flame-throwing bazooka I’d at least be able to shoot a looter or two during the latest pandemic. I thought this global catastrophe was going to be all about getting starving women to service me sexually so that they could enjoy my stockpile of MREs that I got from listening to Sebastian Gorka, but what it really is is a bunch of fucking mutual aid and watching Dear Leader pretend he gives a shit about anyone but himself and his DHLF— which is like the worst. THIS IS FUCKING BULLCRAP!


    1. If the shit hits the fan, what makes you think your local warlord is going to let you keep your flamethrower and MREs or have unauthorized access to the desperate women? Unless you’re badass enough to become a general to your neighborhood Mohamed Farrah Aidid, you’re not going to be shooting or screwing anyone without permission.

      1. He’s not badass enough. He’s a Socialist. Good at whining though.

    2. “#When_Do_I_Get_To_Shoot_A_Mexican?”

      After you pay your mortgage.

    3. So *this* is why you want socialism in America? So you can shoot a Mexican?

  4. There are numerous issues with glass recycling, including increased presence of shredded paper in recycling streams which contaminates materials…

    Magnets for glass. Do I have to think of everything?

  5. I’ve been trying to tell people this for years. My city pays our disposal contractor a premium price for single stream curbside recycling. It’s a lot of money for an illusion to help us feel superior.

  6. Reminds me of a PBS story I recently read. Not only is plastics recycling virtually impossible to do economically, but plastics manufacturers knew this all along and started promoting recycling in the 1970s only as a way to stave off what they saw as looming plastics restrictions.

    1. A link to said story would be appreciated.

    2. Plastics can be recycled easily. The problem is that two of the largest markets for plastics is food packaging and medical. It is illegal to use recycled plastics for either of these.

      1. Except plastic can usually only be recycled a finite number of times because the plastic gets repurposed into types that are not recyclable. Not to mention it is cheaper to make new plastic. Metal and glass can theoretically be recycled infinitely.

    3. “Not only is plastics recycling virtually impossible to do economically, but plastics manufacturers knew this all along and started promoting recycling in the 1970s only as a way to stave off what they saw as looming plastics restrictions.”

      Sniff, sniff…
      Smells like bullbleep.

    4. If plastics are virtually impossible to recycle economically, how does promoting recycling in the 1970’s stave off looming plastic restrictions.

      Because the recycling wouldn’t have worked, right? So, if there were looming plastic restrictions – because of what? Supply? Refining? – then what changed to remove those looming restrictions? Because, obviously, there never were any restrictions.

  7. We selfish, greedy, and egotistical Americans need to get outside our bubble and adopt the recycling habits of more enlightened cultures to deal with the problem. Take Mexico City, for example, where thousands of tons of disposables are taken to a central facility where hundreds of volunteers sort through the material to separate out the recyclables for repurposing. Many cities in Africa and the Third World use this same model on a smaller scale, third-world countries as a whole tend to be more frugal and less materialistic than those of us in the Western world and therefore produce less material and fewer items that need recycling in the first place.

    Fortunately, some cities here in America are becoming more like third-world countries and you can see many volunteer recyclers diligently going through disposal facilities outside stores and restaurants finding material to be re-purposed in these cities.

    1. I fear your sarcasm will be lost on those who don’t know that the “central facility” is the local dump and the “volunteers” are children climbing over the dump, exposing themselves to disease, rot, the risk of being buried alive as the trash piles shift and lots and lots of toxic metals as they search for anything they can sell to survive.

      1. As long as they practice social distancing.

    2. Sounds like we should annex Mexico. We can make it a ‘protectorate’ or something so we can still build the wall. Then we can send the trash down south and they can’t do anything about it.

  8. Lately, we’ve been told to thoroughly wash out glass and plastic containers before we throw in the recycle bin and, it seems like, are carted off to landfills anyway. How much cost, clean water, etc. is being wasted? Wouldn’t it be a lot better to simply sequester this plastic carbon stuff in landfills?

    1. My wife and I argue about this. She carefully washes every container before she puts it into the recycle bin and I refuse to clean them at all. Not only does it waste clean water to wash them, it increases the volume of dirty water going to the community’s sewage treatment facility. If they really reuse this stuff, it seems like it would be more efficient to clean it all together in a centralized location. If they aren’t going to reuse it, why clean it at all?

      1. Yeah, my wife diligently recycles all our cardboard, while I secretly throw what I can in the garbage because she just won’t believe me that cardboard recycling is bullshit.

        1. I’ve been telling my wife for years that all that stuff she recycles goes directly into the landfill. Forwarded her multiple articles on the subject but she just won’t stop. Chicks. Wattayagonnado.

      2. That you’re even putting them in the recycle bin means they’ve won.

        My ‘recycle’ bin is a second garbage can.

  9. Recycling is all about the feelz. Nothing more.

    1. Metal recycling isn’t just for the feels though. But that is why businesses pay for it.

      1. Pretty much. From a cost or environmental impact basis, aluminum is about the only material that always shows positive benefits. Paper and plastic might work in some contexts, but not always. And glass never, never comes close to breaking even.

        1. Really no reason to recycle glass; break it down into small enough chunks and you get sand, from whence it came.

  10. My local paper broke this story last year, revealing that our special recycle-trash “supply” chain had backed up after China stopped accepting mega tons, with stuff first sitting at west coast docks, and then stopped and stored in warehouses and piles in an interior state.

    But our peppy city government and feel-good citizens carry on, smug that if the extra fees for recycling only buys them social signaling, then that is money well-spent.

  11. Your Recyclables Are Going to the Dump

    No kidding. But this isn’t *new*. This has been SOP for decades now. Institute a recycling program to get votes, find out how much it costs to actually recycle, insist everyone use the bins, one truck comes and takes it and dumps it at the dump anyway.

    Nothing new here.

  12. This just in, Virtue Signaling Is Not Economical. More at 11.

  13. All glass goes to solar freakin roadways. It is known.

  14. but Alcoa promised me while it showed me Fantastic Finishes every Sunday.

  15. My recyclables don’t go into the landfill… They go into my wood burning stove.

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