Monday, March 18, 2019

Readers Here Got This Story Eight Years Ago

At least they got an indication it was coming. 

Various news sources are all linking to a story in the New York Times on a growing trend of cities cutting back on recycling as the costs to recycle grow.  Warning: this is the NY Times, so expect a left wing bias. 
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.
It's easy to spot signs of the problems in those three cities that I talked about here in February of 2011.  The problem is that there isn't a market big enough for the materials being recycled so that the supply vastly exceeds demand and the prices for recycled materials have collapsed.  How bad is it?
Reports are that Germany has millions of tons of recyclable plastics piled up in fields because nobody wants the stuff. And it is literally more expensive to collect some recyclables than to just pitch them. San Francisco’s Dept. of Waste figures it pays $4,000/ton to recycle plastic bags for which it receives $32/ton.  (emphasis added)
Obviously, nobody in their right mind is going to pay $4,000/ton to collect and process something to recycle and get $32/ton for it.  Nobody would think of doing that except government.  The only question is why has it taken eight years to get to this point?  One word: China.  To get back to the original link at the NYT:
Prompting this nationwide reckoning is China, which until January 2018 had been a big buyer of recyclable material collected in the United States. That stopped when Chinese officials determined that too much trash was mixed in with recyclable materials like cardboard and certain plastics. After that, Thailand and India started to accept more imported scrap, but even they are imposing new restrictions.

The turmoil in the global scrap markets began affecting American communities last year, and the problems have only deepened.
For seven of those eight years, China imported our recycled waste streams to process.  Until last January when China announced that it would no longer import “foreign garbage.”  That put American communities in a bind and they turned to the companies that were already contracted to handle waste disposal, like Waste Management and Republic Services.  Prices to recycle things started going up.  Suddenly some of the items dutifully separated into recycling bins started getting pushed into the regular trash stream to landfills or incineration. 

Eight years ago, I summed it up this way:
The fact that there's a market for some products to recycle doesn't negate the fact that you can't create a market for something by wishing it into existence.  If there's a use for X tons of waste newspaper on the market that's provided by a handful of companies (and 10 year old boys), when the supply suddenly goes to 10 X or 100 X, the price is going to fall proportionally, and you're still going to end up with tons of newspaper you have no market for.  How much would you pay for something you had absolutely no use for? 
The answer to that final rhetorical question is not only that you wouldn't pay for it, you'd charge the owner to take it off their hands.  That's exactly what's happening here.  
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.
Contamination is a major problem for recycling facilities.  Contamination can be leftover food in a plastic or glass bottle, olive oil residue in its bottle, or it could be things that can't be recycled mixed in with things that can, like styrofoam peanuts or plastic grocery bags mixed in with other plastics.   Don't even think of motor oil residue in a plastic bottle. 

Florida is having the same sorts of problems and has launched a statewide campaign to help stem the red ink flowing in recycling budgets.  They've changed the buzz phrase from its initial, “reduce, reuse, recycle” to “Reset. Rethink. Recycle.” 
“Reset. Rethink. Recycle” is a statewide public education campaign dedicated to increasing Florida’s recycling rate to 75 percent by 2020 and decreasing curbside contamination by helping Floridians rethink what they recycle and reset their behavior to focus on the basics. 
What are the basics?
Q: What CAN I recycle?
A: Focus on 1) aluminum and steel cans, 2) plastic bottles and jugs, and 3) paper and cardboard. Make sure cans, bottles and jugs, and cardboard boxes are clean and dry before going into your curbside recycling bin.
Clearly, this is a major step back from the 20 year old “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra in which everything was recycled and moving more toward trying to sell the things in the trash stream that have long been sellable.  By getting the people who pay for the recycling through their taxes to do some of the labor that recycling companies do, perhaps they can get the cost of recycling down and not lose as much money as they currently do. 

I'd like to think that saner heads might have concluded that they really can't create a market for these used materials by declaring one.  Instead, what I see is that the iron hammer of regulation is going to get flying again.  We have a problem with plastic bags in the recycling stream?  Let's just outlaw them so they can't show up anywhere.  Same thing with those demon plastic straws.  We're getting food containers with oil residue?  We'll track the locations and fine the house that put the dirty container in their reycling. 


  1. When I left SoCal a couple months ago, most of the recycling waste went into general waste once it left the curb and the specially designated truck. The designated truck took the recycling to the Materials Recycling Facility and some of the more valuable recycling, such as steel, was set aside and then they loaded all the crap on a truck and took it to landfill.

    When you think about it, a high percentage of Christmas gifts end up as landfill. The progs have been trying to eliminate Christmas - and that might be the new mantra?

    1. 2 years ago, my employer (a government agency) put in recycling dumpsters in addition to the existing trash dumpsters.
      Guess what? The same truck from the trash company empties both!

  2. Several years ago, my town admitted that they were losing money by doing recycling, but it was "the right thing to do".
    Then, right before the China change, they tossed the long-standing trash company, and went with a new one, complete with expensive new trucks and bins. Each bin has two lids for separate contents. I noticed that they dump both together, though. They are effectively much smaller containers, since they are now holding two different contents. And they cost more.
    Also, I see that the neighboring San Jose trucks have cameras aimed at what is exiting their bins, but, so far, they are not doing enforcement.

    Damn Progs can screw up anything.

    Oh yeah, I no longer bother to separately recycle drink containers. You pay by the can/bottle, but they pay by the pound, and the cans are now 1/3 the weight, and the plastic bottles are also lighter. Screw it, not worth the time and gas to bother.

  3. Bit Chute has the wonderful Penn & Teller Bullsht episode on recycling:

    1. Forgot to mention, that was Season 2, Episode 5.
      First aired in April 2004

      Wonderful stuff - one of their better ones.

  4. Back in SoCal, we used to save all the aluminum cans, flatten them, and bag them. Since aluminum was going for far more than than the "Recycling Fee" (TAX!) it made sense to do it.

    Here in Northern Colorado, they're very picky about what they take. Aluminum and corregated cardboard make enough to pay for everything else, but some items simply aren't accepted.

    1. Ever since I saw that guy make his own AR lower out of melted aluminum cans, I've been meaning to flatten and save mine to melt down "some day". I have two 5 gallon buckets full of aluminum scrap from machining to melt.

  5. Once again the REALITIES of economics and capitalism will not be denied. Virtually ALL garbage created in America CAN be recycled. The problem is
    it's not cost effective. Only a handful of things generate a return on
    the efforts. Thus the rest is not recycled. The problem is money....when
    push comes to shove it doesn't matter HOW "Green" a city is....they aren't
    going to lose money on recycling. So it's back to the tried and true....
    incineration or landfills. Strip away the facade from a commie and there is
    ALWAYS a closet capitalist underneath.

    1. Strip away the facade from a commie and there is
      ALWAYS a closet capitalist underneath.

      I think it's more like they actually have to balance a budget in a city, and when their checks start bouncing it starts getting impossible to put on a good face.

      You know Maggie Thatcher's line about "sooner or later you run out of other people's money"; a city can't print money out of nothing.

  6. Here in Philly, anything of obvious value that you put in recycling will be harvested by independent trash pickers.
    Net gain to the city of Philadelphia is zero.
    As Dave said, Penn & Teller cover the BS of recycling perfectly.

    1. I'm not surprised; I've seen it happen in LA. It also provides a great cover story while checking for unlocked car and house doors.

  7. It costs me more in water and sewer bills to clean out all these containers than recycling them is worth to me.

    1. Not only that, it moves the "pollution" from the landfill to the sewer system. In a landfill, the other word for leftover food is "fertilizer".

  8. And then there are the rural areas, like where I live, where trash service is expensive or not available at all....

    A much better approach to both trash collection and recycling is what I've seen done in several remote communities: There is a communal, usually county provided, dumpster, with optional recycling bins, that everybody takes their trash to. It is MUCH more efficient than curbside trash pickup for a lightly populated area.