ALBANY, N.Y. — America’s recycling industry is in the dumps.
A crash in the global market for recyclables is forcing communities to make hard choices about whether they can afford to keep recycling or should simply send all those bottles, cans and plastic containers to the landfill.
Mountains of paper have piled up at sorting centers, worthless. Cities and towns that once made money on recyclables are instead paying high fees to processing plants to take them. Some financially strapped recycling processors have shut down entirely, leaving municipalities with no choice but to dump or incinerate their recyclables.
“There’s no market. We’re paying to get rid of it,” says Ben Harvey, president of EL Harvey & Sons, which handles recyclables from about 30 communities at its sorting facility in Westborough, Massachusetts. “Seventy-five percent of what goes through our plant is worth nothing to negative numbers now.”
It all stems from a policy shift by China, long the world’s leading recyclables buyer. At the beginning of the year it enacted an anti-pollution program that closed its doors to loads of waste paper, metals or plastic unless they’re 99.5% pure. That’s an unattainable standard at U.S. single-stream recycling processing plants designed to churn out bales of paper or plastic that are, at best, 97% free of contaminants such as foam cups and food waste.