Hundreds of towns and cities across the country have canceled recycling programs, limited the types of material they accepted or agreed to huge price increases. “We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now,” said Fiona Ma, the treasurer of California, where recycling costs have increased in some cities.
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. With fewer buyers, recycling companies are recouping their lost profits by charging cities more, in some cases four times what they charged last year. Amid the soaring costs, cities and towns are making hard choices about whether to raise taxes, cut other municipal services or abandon an effort that took hold during the environmental movement of the 1970s.
“Recycling has been dysfunctional for a long time,” said Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America, a nonprofit organization that pushes for more standardized labels on recycling bins to help people better sort material. “But not many people really noticed when China was our dumping ground.”
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, 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.
The higher recycling fees, analysts say, will help bolster the largest companies’ already booming businesses. Waste Management reported strong operating profits in 2018, while Republic reported increased revenue driven by its waste business.