When Marylanders first started tossing recyclables into the blue bin and setting it out by the curb about a decade ago, only a small percentage of the material ended up in a landfill or incinerator. Now, as much as a third of it gets trashed.
Local governments once made money selling off paper, bottles and cans. But this year many around the Baltimore region have started spending taxpayer money on recycling. That’s because a ton of recyclables fetches just a quarter of the price it commanded seven years ago.
Recycling experts say the trends are the product of good intentions, but poor education — a phenomenon they call “aspirational” recycling, or “wishcycling.”
The increasing presence of food scraps, plastic bags and even bowling balls in recycling streams, where they don’t belong, has thrown off the industry’s economics. And that’s threatening a practice that’s seen as planet-saving altruism but depends on a volatile web of buyers and sellers.
“People are thinking they’re doing the right thing,” said Michael Taylor, director of recycling operations for the industry giant Waste Management. “Our message is, when in doubt, throw it out.”
The Houston-based company runs a sorting facility in Elkridge, where trucks arrive in a steady rumble to dump loads of recycling from households in Baltimore and Carroll, Howard and Anne Arundel counties. The company employs 170 people there — almost twice as many as when the warehouse opened in 2006 — to scan junk as it whizzes by on conveyor belts and pull out the material that doesn’t belong.
Taylor said the job has grown increasingly difficult as the recycling bin has become “the convenient container of choice when the trash is full.”
Most people know the basics of recycling: Newspaper, cardboard, soda bottles and milk jugs are all OK. The Elkridge facility and others like it separate these materials out one by one. A series of spinning wheels tosses newspaper upward, leaving heavier materials to fall below. Magnets pull out metal cans, and an optical scanner detects plastic and directs puffs of air to lift milk jugs and other light containers out of the stream.
Once sorted, the recyclables are pressed and tied into bales and shipped to someone who wants to turn them into something else. Much of the material heads overseas through the port of Baltimore 18 miles away.
But there are also leftovers. For every six tons that passes over the facility’s conveyor belts, one ton doesn’t belong in any of those bales. Cardboard is welcomed, but not greasy, cheesy pizza boxes. Plastic containers are OK, but if they have too much yogurt or peanut butter still inside them, they could foul an entire bale of plastics. Paper is the biggest resource, by weight, but if it’s shredded and dumped into the recycling bin, it just gets stuck to glass bottles.
There are other items that can be recycled, just not through single-stream sorting centers, such as plastic grocery bags, batteries and electronics. And then there are items that should go straight to the trash — garden hoses, wood pallets, or, on one recent afternoon, a bound stack of roofing shingles.
The proportion of waste mixed into recycling is still higher at other facilities. Baltimore County operates a processing center in Cockeysville. Of the nearly 6,800 tons of recycling the county collects each month, officials said, 32 percent typically passes through sorting to end up in a landfill.
“Many Americans are not very good recyclers,” said David Biderman, CEO of Solid Waste Association of North America, a trade organization. “What we’ve lost sight of is that we should be reducing the amount of waste that we generate. It became easier to just throw things in the blue bin.”
Well-meaning people might assume that detritus can just be filtered out at the recycling center — no harm, no foul. But the growing contamination of recycling streams has thrown off regional and global markets for the raw materials, perhaps eventually threatening the economic viability of single-stream recycling.
China this year stopped accepting imports of paper to be recycled unless it is virtually free of contamination (and yes, those little plastic envelope windows are considered a contaminant). While the United States has increased exports to other countries to make up for the loss of demand, those countries aren’t taking enough to make up for China’s absence from the marketplace, causing prices to plummet.
The Waste Management facility recently paid a paper mill to take a load of junk mail and other mixed paper off its hands, Taylor said.
Glass has long been a challenge, he said. It’s expensive to transport to glass recycling facilities — and besides, all that’s needed to make new glass is sand. The material makes up about 17 percent of Baltimore’s recycling tonnage, but it’s essentially worthless. A recycling stream that once made the city $50 per ton now costs it that much to deal with.
The city’s recycling was valued at $112 a ton seven years ago, but that value fell this year to $30, city officials said.
“Long-term, there’s a concern of, where is this going to go?” said Chris Skaggs, executive director of the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority. “Will markets pick up, or is this a new reality of recycling?”
For now, the reality seems to be higher costs for local governments. On a recent conference call with investors, Waste Management CEO James Fish said the company has no choice but to charge governments more to smooth out the risks of fluctuating prices. It’s also stressing the importance of educating residents on what can and can’t go into single-stream bins.
“We simply can’t continue with the model in its current state,” he said. “Recycling is a good thing, but unfortunately it has shifted away from this recycling for the saving of the world’s natural resources to diversion, which just means how much less can I put in my trash bin and how much more can I put in my recycle bin. And I think that has kind of a bad unintended consequence.”
Costs are already going up. In 2015, Carroll County received $15 per ton of recyclables it sent to the Elkridge facility, spokesman Chris Winebrenner said. Now it pays an average of $20 per ton to get rid of it.
Anne Arundel County received its first-ever recycling charge in March, a bill that has since averaged $12.50 a ton.
Baltimore recently renewed its contract with Waste Management with a processing fee of $82.93 per ton, up from $54 in 2011.
Harford County doesn’t offer county recycling.
Cody Marshall, vice president of technical assistance for the Recycling Partnership, said the economic challenges are sparking conversations between local governments and recycling processors around the country about how they can work together to reduce contamination in the recycling stream.
The Northern Virginia-based organization, funded by corporations including Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil and Waste Management, works with communities to promote and improve recycling.
Cities could agree to pay penalties if recycling streams are too dirty, for example, he said. Massachusetts, Atlanta, Chicago and Denver are alerting residents when they break recycling rules.
Those efforts have improved the recycling stream in those places, Marshall said, suggesting other communities could benefit from more education.
“We’re learning they can fix the behavior and improve quality,” he said. “They’re just not being informed.”
Some environmentalists are already pushing Baltimore to clean up its waste system, or eventually cut out waste altogether. Groups are pushing the Department of Public Works to consider a zero-waste future, and the City Council has passed resolutions in support of their efforts.
Dante Swinton, an organizer with the Energy Justice Network, said it might be best if the city switched away from the single-stream system it launched in 2010 to one that separates out glass and compostable waste. Most of the waste left over at the Elkridge recycling facility goes to be burned at the Wheelabrator Baltimore incinerator near Russell Street and Interstate 95, the city’s largest source of industrial air pollution.
“There’s a lot of potential in the waste stream,” he said. “This is the perfect time for us to sit down and start having this conversation about moving the city away from the incinerator and toward zero waste.”
Government officials and Waste Management say they plan to step up their outreach to residents who mean well, but can’t always tell recycling myth from recycling fact.
It doesn’t help that preferences differ slightly among the Elkridge facility, the Baltimore County center, and other recycling sorters, or that some materials are recyclable, but just aren’t worth the cost or effort in a single-stream system.
Nick Nichols says he frequently sees bits of plastic foam floating in the Chesapeake Bay when he takes his 25-foot boat out fishing. So when the Hampden man ordered steaks that arrived in foam, he collected it and dropped it at the Northwest Citizens' Convenience Center nearby.
But as the city looks to eliminate foam waste altogether — the ban goes into effect in October 2019 — the vendor that collects and recycles polystyrene foam there has stopped serving the Sisson Street facility.
Nichols tried putting his steak foam out with his curbside recycling. A city crew took his cardboard Amazon boxes, but not the foam coolers.
“What are we supposed to do with this stuff?” he asks. He says he can think of only one solution — one he knows is the polar opposite of recycling: breaking up the foam and dumping it in the trash.