A Governing magazine article explores modern challenges with local recycling programs across the country — including the proliferation of more complicated materials that leave citizens unsure whether they are eligible for the recycling stream. Local recycling centers are seeking to better educate citizens on system use, and to improve their back-end management of an increasingly complicated material stream.
People on all sides of recycling agree that contamination is a major problem. “There is a lack of consistency with how communities educate about curbside recycling programs, leading to confusion and frustration regarding understanding what is recyclable and where and how to find program information,” wrote the authors of The 2016 State of Curbside Report, which was prepared by the Recycling Partnership for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Many communities do not provide easy-to-access and easy-to-understand recycling-related information.”
Just a decade or two ago, residents sorted their recyclables for curbside pickup. But in order to increase household recycling rates, cities moved to “single-stream” recycling: One bin for everything — newspapers, glass, aluminum, tin, plastic and cardboard. Compliance is easier for residents and, since the city only needs one truck to pick up everything, it saves money. But the downside is that someone eventually does have to sort out the paper from the cardboard and the glass and cans from the plastic. It makes the process more expensive because now instead of just one household sorting it out, employees at a waste facility and big, costly machines do it. It also leads to more contamination and a decrease in the quality of the materials recovered. That, in turn, matters to the people who buy bales of recycled material and turn it into new products.
Another challenge is that the materials manufacturers are using are becoming more complex. “We are creating packages that are hard to recycle,” [Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)] says.