Are curbside recycling programs really effective?

We’re coming up on two years since China implemented its National Sword policy, and it appears that curbside recycling in the United States has hit a wall. The recycling industry is paying the price.

Curbside recycling trash cans

Locally, many of the smaller municipalities around the city of Phoenix are having a tough time with curbside recycling programs. For most communities, the programs are costing more than they are getting back from the sale of recycled materials. The city of Surprise, AZ, sent notice to its 130,000 residents that “due to soaring operational recycling costs and plunging commodity prices for many recyclables, the city will begin diverting recycled material to the landfill.”

While the citizens of Surprise were, well, surprised to learn of this change, many are downright outraged! Recycling is the feel-good effort of the 21st century, and many believe cities should continue curbside recycling no matter the cost. Yet, it’s the “single stream” recycling system and the fact that people don’t know what to recycle or how their recycled materials should look—i.e., clean—that make recycling unprofitable for many municipalities.

Recently, the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) Applied Research Foundation’s (ARF) Recycling Group released a report, “Resetting Curbside Recycling Programs in the Wake of China.” The SWANA Recycling Group identified the need to provide solid waste managers with up-to-date information and guidance.

As China was a major purchaser of recyclable materials from North America and around the world, the National Sword policy resulted in a significant reduction in demand for these materials and the prices paid for them, said the report’s summary. In addition, the extremely low new contamination limit of 0.5% forced managers of materials recovery facilities (MRFs) that process recyclables collected through municipal programs to re-examine the sources and causes of contamination in their recovered materials.

The report noted a number of important observations and insights regarding the impact of the National Sword policy on curbside recycling programs and the resets that can be made to address them. About 65 million households in the United States are provided with curbside recycling services. “Collectively, these programs divert about nine million tons of recyclables from disposal each year,” said the SWANA report. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that China’s National Sword policy has resulted in an approximate 50% reduction in revenues received from the sale of recyclables recovered through curbside recycling. This represents a reduction of more than $400 million per year. An analysis of the collection and processing costs and current revenues associated with curbside recycling programs indicates that these programs cost homeowners about $6.85 per household per month when recyclables are collected on a weekly basis, the report noted. “The impact of the China National Sword policy on MRF recycling revenues and processing costs is estimated to account for $0.75 per household per month, or about 11% of this cost.”

The three major recycling commodities that have been impacted by the China policy are mixed paper, mixed plastics and corrugated containers, and most curbside recycling programs are single-stream collection programs. All of the materials are mixed together and the plastics are co-mingled, making the sorting process ineffective. According to some recent reports on recycling, many cities are not taking paper, as paper recycling plants are drowning in recyclate. 

Let’s face it: Even U.S. plastics recyclers do not want to deal with the dirty plastic recyclate and secondary sorting that is often necessary. According to SWANA’s report, contamination/residue levels at MRFs typically range between 15% and 25% and are costing curbside recycling programs over $1 billion per year on a national basis when additional collection and processing costs associated with contamination are considered. “While contamination has not been caused by the China National Sword policy, it has been highlighted and exacerbated by it,” said SWANA. 

SWANA’s report notes that certain “resets to curbside recycling programs can result in cost savings that will more than offset the cost increases” resulting from China’s policy. These include switching recyclables collection from a weekly to a bi-weekly basis and switching glass recycling from curbside to drop-off centers, SWANA suggests.

If people such as those citizens of Surprise want to preserve the current recycling model, it will need to be refined from single-stream, mixed waste and co-mingled plastic collection to a system more conducive to capturing the true value of plastic materials.

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