More Americans recycle than vote. But we have to do better

Illustration by Laura Weiszer

Illustration by Laura Weiszer

A Plague of Plastic Bags

by Phil Bresee

Throughout much of 2015, negative stories and shortsighted opinion pieces on recycling dotted national and local media.  

The stories, including a particularly exasperating editorial by John Tierney in The New York Times, mostly stemmed from reports on the historic low-market values for recyclables, and called into question recycling’s overall viability.  

The most egregious claim is that recycling doesn’t pay. Tierney writes, “Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill.” 

As the City of Philadelphia’s recycling director, I can tell you that’s simply not true. I see the numbers every day, and investing in recycling is still the right choice. Even with historic low markets for materials, the city’s recycling program should save us $3.5 million this year.

Prices are clearly not in our control. Philadelphians should know that while recycling helps conserve natural resources and save energy in manufacturing, it’s also a business enterprise that operates within global markets. Once collected, processed, sorted, etc. at materials recovery facilities (or MRFs, pronounced “merfs”), recyclables become raw materials that are bought and sold all across the world, just like other commodities. 

Starting about three years ago, prices paid for recyclables began tumbling due to a perfect storm of macroeconomic forces, including shrinking GDP growth in China, a strong dollar, and low crude oil prices, just to name a few. The low prices have not just hurt businesses throughout the recycling supply chain, but have also put the squeeze on municipal recycling programs all across the U.S. in the form of lost revenues and high processing costs. 

We do, however, have control over how we recycle as a city. More Philadelphians need to understand the role they play in how financially successful—or not—the city’s recycling program is. Given the current state of the markets, keeping nonrecyclable materials out of the blue bins is critical. By “recycling right” the city could save even more money, leaving available funds that directly support other city services.

The two biggest problem materials that cause havoc and lost revenues for Philadelphia’s recycling program? Plastic bags and polystyrene foam (e.g., Styrofoam). Neither belongs in blue bins.

They’re not recyclable in our curbside program, or in just about anyone else’s. Unfortunately, they’re still omnipresent and are emblazoned with the recycling Möbius symbol, so even some of the most aware recyclers place them in their blue bins with good intentions. The bags shred while traveling through a MRF and wrap around its many moving parts, which causes costly shutdowns and delays.  

Recyclers should take these items back to retailers to recycle, throw them out, or—better yet—use reusable shopping bags. Products such as foam cups, plates and clamshell takeout containers have little market value—and are often contaminated with food waste—but are commonly tossed into recycling bins. 

Does all of this mean your recyclables just get trashed if you accidentally toss plastic bags or foam plastic into your blue bin? Not necessarily. However, if the same mistakes are made by all 1,200 homes on a recycling route, a truckload of recyclables could indeed be rejected at the MRF.

The city, and our recyclers, need to continue to educate ourselves and evolve.  This year, we’ll be rolling out programs to target residents in apartments and condos, and expanding our public space recycling program.

Recycling is arguably our country’sgreatest environmental success story. Consider that two-thirds of Americans are able to participate in curbside recycling, and nine out of 10 Americans have access to programs overall.  

More people recycle than vote, making it a remarkable citizen-engagement achievement. Many believe that recycling can be a gateway to other environmentally conscious behaviors, such as conserving energy at home and work, buying greener products or taking public transit.

It can also remind us to create less waste in the first place, which far and away will always have the greatest environmental benefit. During the past seven years In Philadelphia, we’ve seen a120 percent increase in tons of curbside recycling. Just as importantly, we’ve seen a 19 percent drop in household garbage disposal, and a seven percent decrease in garbage generation over that time period. 

We’re in the closing stages of updating our solid waste master plan, and our goals going forward will focus more on waste reduction.

That could include organics—such as yard wastes and food wastes—which make up the largest component of our garbage. And we’re in the beginning stages of an organics recycling feasibility study that we hope will help us identify some ways to move forward in this new frontier.

Paying attention to all these opportunities, metrics and financials is essential to running an efficient, sustainable recycling program for Philadelphia. But it’s also misguided to only consider the bottom line. Recycling is an environmental win at a time when the country sorely needs it.

We need to remember that the environmental benefits of recycling are paramount.

Philadelphians have embraced recycling and recognize that it is crucial to ensuring clean, safe and green streets. It’s also a way for all of us to be a part of building a more sustainable Philadelphia. Let’s recycle right.

Phil Bresee is the recycling director for the City of Philadelphia.