How Cities Can Revive Recycling

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As America celebrates the 49th Earth Day, we reflect on how much has changed and how much more still needs to change to create a more sustainable world. Municipal recycling has always been closely linked to Earth Day as one of the most direct and personal ways that Americans contribute to sustainability efforts.

But if you’ve seen the news recently you might have the impression that recycling is doomed. Some cities sending recyclables to landfills, some are burning them, and others have ended curbside recycling pickup altogether. It all stems from a series of limitations on materials that China will allow to be imported from other countries, including the United States. Because China was such a massive importer of recyclable materials, the policies have dramatically shifted markets for several recyclable commodities, painting a bleak picture.

These outliers may be getting a lot of attention, but many more cities are stepping up with creative solutions to make recycling systems stronger. In September 2018, NLC released Rethinking Recycling to share many of these stories and recommendations. We followed up with city leaders and industry experts to understand how America can use this global shift as a way to revisit recycling and build greater domestic capacity.

Don’t Be Hasty

Strong recycling programs are the product of years of public education. The City of Fort Collins is planning on “riding out” the recycling disruption. In the interest of maintaining the recycling program’s stability, curbside collection remains in place. Susan Gordon, the Environmental Program Manager for Fort Collins and a board member at the National Recycling Coalition, remarked that the city has informed residents that some material is being taken to the landfill but that the city will keep collecting it until the market stabilizes and recycling can begin again.

She sees the current predicament as a blip that will pass. This month, Fort Collins singed a regional agreement with Larimer County and Loveland to replace their current county landfill with a “resource recovery park.” The site will include an on-site transfer station to send waste to the new landfill, and a recycling facility for construction and demolition waste, yard waste, recycling, and food scraps. Gordon estimates that “we’ll be able to divert 50%-60% what we’re currently landfilling.”

Reconsider Your Streams

The root of the current problem is not recyclable materials, but contamination of recycling streams with other non-recyclable material. Much of this can be traced back to single-stream recycling. Kingston, NY was recently forced to revert to dual-stream to provide cleaner, more valuable products when Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency decided it would no longer accept single-stream. The City made the switch to dual stream on April 1st, 2019, purchasing new recycling totes for all households and distributing them door-to-door.

Julie Noble, Kingston’s Environmental Education and Sustainability Coordinator and Recycling Coordinator, noted that the city’s hauler workforce has not increased. Instead, curbside pickup scheduling and duties have been modified. Paper and cardboard now are placed in the new totes and picked up curbside once every other week. Plastic, glass, and metal are placed in the older totes and picked up on the alternate week.

Find Improvement Elsewhere in the Waste System

The challenges facing recycling are greatest in residential curbside pickup, but this is only a fraction of the material that finds its way to landfills and recycling facilities. Like Fort Collins, the city of Tempe, AZ is trying to hold true to its current recycling streams, but they are also shifting focus to organics as well as construction and demolition (C&D) material. Vice Mayor Lauren Kuby explained that the city does a lot of social media and recycling issues routinely get the biggest response. “People really care,” she says, “and this is a teachable moment that is actually increasing political will to make changes.”

A new scale, screener, stone crusher, and other upgrades will improve accuracy of data, efficiency, as well as processing capacity for both organics and C&D. Tempe’s Water Department and Transportation Department are looking to utilize crushed debris when constructing new infrastructure, for example using the aggregate for waterline trenches. Braden Kay, the Director of Sustainability for the city of Tempe, remarked “If we’re going to be great recyclers, we need to be great re-manufacturers.”

A Broader Perspective

After hearing stories from cities like Tempe, Fort Collins, and Kingston, NLC staff spoke with David Biderman, Executive Director at the Solid Waste Association of America (SWANA), who refuses to call the current situation a crisis. One major hauler he works with serves more than 1000 cities to offer curbside recycling, and fewer than 5 have ended that service.

Biderman believes there is much more reason for optimism. Over the next two years, 19 new recycling facilities will open their doors here in the US and many other domestic sites are expanding their capacity to help meet the demand. “The over whelming majority of Americans, when polled, say they want to recycle. Local governments shouldn’t be shy about saying ‘we want to recycle too. It’s not free, it is a service, but it’s goanna cost you $2.50 per month, less than a cup of coffee.” Americans should still feel good about recycling, he says. “Recycling means extracting less material out of the ground. It preserves landfill space for the material that really needs to go there, and it creates jobs.”

As cities navigate the new landscape of recycling, they should take heart that there is new potential. Domestic capacity is increasing, there are new opportunities for food waste and C&D materials, and innovation continues to yield new solutions. Changes are certainly coming, but none of them spell doom for the industries or cities who support it.

Brenna Rivett smallAbout the authors: Brenna Rivett is a Principal Research Associate in NLC’s Center for City Solutions. Brenna’s areas of expertise include data analytics, quantitative research, housing policy, and urban sustainability. Kristen Vinculado is an Intern in the Center for City Solutions.

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Kristen Vinculado is an Intern in the Center for City Solutions. She supports the Center’s research priorities in affordable housing and sustainability. Kristen is pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Sustainable Social Development at the City College of New York.