When China implemented stricter standards last year for the recyclable material it would accept, requiring it to be no less than 99.5 percent pure, many suburban Philadelphia municipalities cooled their heels to see whether the restrictions would eventually ease. “That’s happened in the past,” said Frank Chimera, area senior manager of municipal sales for Republic Services, a major recycling processor in the region. “They’ve become restrictive for a few months, and then turned it around and started relaxing the standards again.”
That didn’t happen. If anything, China has signaled it will only become tougher on accepting America’s recyclable trash. And now, recycling programs face this challenge: finding a way to undo habits built up over decades, so that they can find markets for the incoming waste. “For a long time, more was better, and a lot of programs were set up to drive more recycling,” Chimera said. “We ran that way as a country for probably 20 years.”
That was fine, as long as China was willing to take our waste, from soiled pizza boxes to dirty peanut butter jars. Now that the rules have changed, municipalities have had to adjust, in some cases changing their programs‚ and, in nearly all cases, re-educating the public about what is recyclable material.
For Delaware County recycling manager Sara Nelson, that has involved creating a brochure for residents on how to recycle properly, outlining what is recyclable and what is not, and how to throw items out properly. (Wash out all jars. Break down all cardboard boxes. No plastic bags). “People want to do the right thing,” Nelson said. “They just need to know what the right thing is.”
The difficulty, however, is that within Delaware County, individual townships have their own rules. Some take plastics #1 through #7. Others only take certain numbers. That’s the case in other outlying counties, too, including Montgomery and Bucks. “There’s not a lot of standardization from township to township, city to city, state to state, on what is acceptable and what’s not,” Chimera said. “Some of that depends on the recycling facility that it goes to.”
One town may encourage residents to recycle egg cartons or orange juice cartons, while another a few blocks away may refuse those items. “There’s all these little differences that make it confusing,” said Veronica Harris, recycling manager for Montgomery County.
She said a statewide standard would cut down on the confusion. So would a system where major packaging producers such as Coca-Cola, Unilever and General Mills had more skin in the game. One such model, known as an “extended producer responsibility” model, or EPR, involves a system in which producers take back their packaging. Canada has embraced that model, and Europe and California have been studying it. “It puts the players at the table,” Harris said.
“Right now, we have no efficiency. We’re all just swimming in our little ponds, trying to figure things out as best we can,” she said. “But with EPR, now you have a system in place that really gets to the root of what’s going on and tries to make it cost-efficient and operationally efficient.”