Last year started out poorly for recycling in Philadelphia, as the city sent half its recycling to incinerators while it brokered a deal with Waste Management that took effect in June. This year, widespread incineration has stopped, but taxpayers will be coughing up millions more to handle the waste that few haulers want to deal with anymore.
In fact, the city is now paying about $106 a ton to dispose of its recycling, up from $78 a ton this time last year, said Scott McGrath, the city’s environmental planner. Two years ago, the city was paying only $5 a ton, still far from the days when recycling was actually a moneymaker.
In all, taxpayers will pony up $9 million this fiscal year for Waste Management to haul their throwaway plastics, glass bottles, and paper — almost double what the city was paying just a few years ago.
But McGrath said Philadelphia has pledged to continue recycling, and residents say they want it.
“We want to remind everybody, yes, we are recycling,” McGrath said. “There still seems to be a little confusion about that.”
McGrath and other industry experts say consumers can play a big role by placing nonrecyclable or dirty items in the trash, rather than the blue recycling bins. Indeed, so much of the city’s recycling stream is contaminated by nonrecycling items and plastic or paper ruined by food waste or water that at least a fifth goes to a landfill or is incinerated at a waste-to-energy facility.
McGrath said there is some indication the recycling market could improve by spring but that’s no sure thing.
The country’s recycling crisis has hit Philadelphia hard, starting in 2018 when China, then the biggest buyer of U.S. recyclables, shut off the faucet by demanding loads be nearly pure. Philadelphia, and most U.S. cities, can’t come close to producing pure loads even now. Other countries, such as Vietnam and India, started taking recyclables, but now they, too, are demanding the same kind of purity.
So American haulers and recycling processors such as West Management have increased rates to make the economics of recycling work.
McGrath said it can be cheaper to produce new plastic, which is made from fossil fuels, than recycle old. That’s because energy prices are so low from a glut of fossil fuel being produced.
The amount of plastics people are tossing in their recycling bins continues to grow, especially plastic takeout bags, McGrath said. The ubiquitous bags handed out by retailers for every purchase, no matter how small, are not recycled in Philadelphia and most municipalities because of their low value. And they jam recycling machinery.
Philadelphia passed a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2019, but it will take effect in July.
The city is under a five-year contract with Waste Management to provide recycling services at the company’s plant on Bleigh Avenue, where plastics, cardboard, glass, paper, and metals are sorted and baled for resale or reuse.
“In general, the markets are not strong for most of those materials,” said John Hambrose, a spokesperson for Waste Management.
McGrath said he believes the city’s recycling stream is getting cleaner, thanks to more aware residents. But the contamination level is still way too high.
Brett Stevens, a vice president at TerraCycle, said he agrees with McGrath that markets could see an uptick in demand. TerraCycle, based in Trenton, specializes in recycling products that aren’t typically included in curbside residential pickups, such as plastic bags. The company turns the plastic into pellets used to make new plastic products.
In the last several years, he said, the cost of collecting plastic, sorting it, and converting it into pellets outweighed the value. But now, he said, entrepreneurs are finding new markets, and new machines that clean and process recyclables are being built.
Among the many ways the company makes money is to recycle plastic bags from retail outlets that provide a recycling bin for consumers.
But even finding retailers to recycle bags is getting trickier. Some have stopped the practice, such as Mom’s Organic Market, which has a store in Center City. Mom’s announced on its website that it “will no longer accept plastic bags, snack bags, foil-lined energy bar wrappers, personal health and beauty packaging, Brita/water filters, baby food squeeze packages, and drink packages starting Jan. 1.”
The news was disheartening for residents such as Lisa Wagner, who wrote to Curious Philly asking about the new Mom’s policy, and saying she is trying to curb the use of plastic bags at home. Curious Philly is The Inquirer’s portal that allows readers to ask our reporters questions, and then we hunt down the answers.
“I’ve been hoping to get our building to be more proactive about this but there needs to be someplace to take all of the plastic that we generate,” Wagner wrote. She said the meal delivery services she uses still bring the food in bags.
“My big concern is that other stores ... will follow suit,” Wagner said, calling the plastic bag situation “a nightmare.”
Mom’s contracted with a private hauler to recycle the bags but discovered the bags were instead being incinerated.
Separately, Mom’s had a contract with TerraCycle to recycle other plastic items, such as personal health product packaging, but the contract was terminated because it could no longer comply with TerraCycle guidelines.
Mom’s said “changes in the recycling markets have made the recycling of plastic bags nearly impossible.”
A TerraCycle representative said the company “strives to manage each of our recycling programs within the budget allocated by the program sponsor,” but the volume of waste Mom’s was collecting was more than the recycler could support.
In addition, Stevens, the TerraCycle vice president, said contamination levels in recycling collection bins used by retailers are often high because passersby mistake the bins for trash receptacles. It now costs retailers money to operate such programs, where once they got industry rebates, he said.
Still, Stevens said, there’s a growing demand for plastics to make such products as engineered outdoor decking. He said the U.S. domestic recycling industry is building more infrastructure but it takes time.
“There is a small recovery coming,” Stevens said. “Recycling has gotten a bit of a bad name because of the China ban. But recycling is not going anywhere.”