The Volokh Conspiracy

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Is Recycling on the Ropes?

Recycling waste streams is supposed to be economical, but many jurisdictions are discovering that's not always so.


The costs faced by many municipal recycling programs are skyrocketing, causing some cities to consider waste management alternatives, including burning recyclable wastes in incinerators. The New York Times reports:

Recycling, for decades an almost reflexive effort by American households and businesses to reduce waste and help the environment, is collapsing in many parts of the country.

Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents' recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it.

Those are just three of the hundreds of towns and cities across the country that have canceled recycling programs, limited the types of material they accepted or agreed to huge price increases.

Municipalities are discovering that processing recyclables can be expensive, and waste management firms are becoming less willing to treat recycling programs as loss leaders. Another part of the problem is that China is no longer an eager recipient of America's recyclable waste streams, in part due to the problem of preventing contamination when non-recyclable items get intermingled with recyclables. From the NYT story:

While there remains a viable market in the United States for scrap like soda bottles and cardboard, it is not large enough to soak up all of the plastics and paper that Americans try to recycle. The recycling companies say they cannot depend on selling used plastic and paper at prices that cover their processing costs, so they are asking municipalities to pay significantly more for their recycling services. Some companies are also charging customers additional "contamination" fees for recycled material that is mixed in with trash.

In lieu of recycling, some have turned to waste incineration, including at waste-to-energy facilities. In other cases the waste gets sent off to landfills.

Old habits die hard, though, and many are not willing to give up the encouragement of recycling, even if little waste ends up being recycled. The NYT reports the Memphis airport plans on "keeping its recycling bins in place to preserve 'the culture' of recycling among passengers and employees," in the hope actual recycling will resume at some future point.