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.
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.
With fewer buyers, recycling companies are recouping their lost profits by charging cities more, in some cases four times what they charged last year.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the big winners appear to be the nation’s largest recyclers, like Waste Management and Republic Services, which are also large trash collectors and landfill owners.
Recycling had been one of the least lucrative parts of their business, trailing hauling and landfills. Analysts say many waste companies had historically viewed recycling as a “loss leader,” offering the service largely to win over a municipality’s garbage business.
That equation is starting to change. 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.