Is recycling really in jeopardy?


Issues may plague recycling, but they can be addressed to create a healthy industry

June 7, 2017

If you read the April 20 USA Today article, “Recycling is in trouble—and it might be your fault,” you probably thought the newspaper was a little late to the party. Those who collect, process and sell recyclables as part of their businesses know the many challenges material recovery facilities (MRFs) face with contamination coupled with fluctuating commodities prices, but these are nothing new.

Processors have been dealing with contamination since the invention of single-stream recycling more than 20 years ago and with fluctuations in commodity pricing for much longer. But the situation has become increasingly challenging. China has continued to impose higher quality standards for mixed paper and plastics it buys from abroad. As a result, many MRFs have slowed down or upgraded their processing lines and have implemented better quality control standards, which in turn means further investment in equipment and resources.

The evolving waste stream hasn’t helped either. With lightweight packaging, it takes more loads of material to get a ton of recyclables than it did 10 years ago.

While these topics are well-known in the waste and recycling industry and addressed regularly in the trade magazines processors read, including Recycling Today and Waste Today, the USA Today article had a different audience—the general public, your customers.

These people may be unaware that their habits are affecting your business. They throw their trash and recyclables in carts and place them at the curb. What happens to the material after that is pretty much a mystery to many of them, and it’s a mystery many don’t care to solve.

But the way the USA Today article points the finger at the public will hopefully get them to think twice before they throw a plastic bag or a garden hose in their recycling carts. As someone who works in the business, you may take for granted how little people know about what you do for a living and how their behavior affects your operation.

People often don’t realize the negative consequences of their actions, such as putting a soiled pizza box or a burnt out string of Christmas lights in their recycling carts. We know such carelessness can cause equipment to jam or make a bale of material less valuable. People want disposal to be easy, and single-stream recycling has made recycling so easy that people don’t even realize they need to learn what they can and cannot recycle at the curb.

I think it is terrific that many newer MRFs today recognize the importance of education so much so that they make dedicated education centers part of their facilities. Many MRFs and municipalities have outreach programs and employees whose jobs are to educate the public on the proper way to recycle. These investments are worth their weight in gold.

I certainly hope the USA Today article helped to raise awareness among its readers about the important role they play in the viability of the recycling industry. I also hope it helps them realize that recycling correctly will keep costs down and will keep an industry that might employ many people in their local communities afloat.