Hunt Griffith walked along Sansom Street in West Philadelphia recently, just after city Streets Department workers had scooped up blue recycling buckets, dumped them into a truck, and roared away.
Griffith, 24, a postgraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, paused when he learned from a reporter that the truck was likely headed to an incinerator at a waste-to-energy plant.
“That’s definitely surprising,” Griffith said, considering that he and his roommates had carefully separated recyclables. “When you put out recycling, you expect it to be recycled.”
The days when Philadelphia got paid for its recyclables have faded like the haze of burning trash. At least half of the items for recycling are now being incinerated because the price a contractor wanted to process them by separating paper, plastics, metals, and glass — as well as finding markets for them — became too high.
The other half is still going to a recycling facility for processing. But there, it’s likely at least a portion of the loads are contaminated — by food residue, water, or nonrecyclable items — and subsequently disposed of as waste. (Even grease on a pizza box is enough to deem the cardboard nonrecyclable.)
Victoria Aslan, another West Philadelphia resident surprised at the turn in recycling, said, “It’s inflammatory on so many levels. It’s just very distressing.”
City officials say there’s one main reason for this bad turn: China’s recent refusal to accept anything but the most pure loads of recyclables has had a huge ripple effect across the markets.
China, once the biggest single processor of recycling, said in the spring that it would no longer accept loads of recyclable items — such as plastic, glass, cardboard, and metals — that were more than 0.5 percent contaminated. Officials said they were trying to cut down on pollution from processing dirty recyclables.
Philadelphia’s contamination rate is anywhere from 15 percent to 20 percent. That meant its previous contractor for recycling, Republic Services, had to find other markets for processing or begin disposing of portions of contaminated loads in other ways, such as in landfills or by incineration.
As recently as the first quarter of 2012, Philadelphia was getting paid $67.35 a ton for its recyclables. By summer 2018, Republic was negotiating a new contract to process recyclables that would cost the city $170 a ton.
Scott McGrath, the city’s environmental planner, said the high quote put officials in a corner.
“So for a three- or four-month period, it would have cost … more than triple what we would have paid under the old contract just to do a short-term extension,” McGrath said. “We would have gone from paying $2 million a year for recycling to $8 million.”
In the fall, the Streets Department cobbled together a short-term solution until it could land a contract with acceptable prices.
Waste Management agreed to accept recyclables for $78 a ton at its State Road and Bleigh Avenue facility. But it didn’t have the capacity to take all the recycling. At the facility, recycling is separated and eventually sold off as a commodity. Non-recyclables get sorted out and disposed of as waste.
The curbside recycling from the Northeast and Northwest sections of the city are sent to Waste Management because those areas traditionally generate the “cleanest” recyclables. City officials estimate that’s about half of the city’s curbside recycling. Census data show the two sections equate to about 40 percent of the city’s population.
The rest of the city’s curbside recycling goes to Covanta’s transfer station in Southwest Philadelphia. From there, it goes to the company’s waste-to-energy plant in Chester for $63 a ton.
Covanta’s facility burns the material and creates steam that generates electricity, which is distributed to the local power grid. The facility does emit some pollutants. But the company says its equipment removes much of the pollutants and particulates so they remain well under allowable federal standards. Ash residue is collected and sent to a landfill. Metals get pulled out by magnets and are recovered as scrap.
James Regan, a spokesperson for Covanta, agreed it would be preferable if the loads were recycled. But he noted they are being used as an energy source.
“With the upheaval in the market, the material has to go somewhere,” Regan said.
McGrath acknowledged the dual-contractor situation is not ideal, but said it’s a better option than sending the recyclables directly to a landfill. Nevertheless, McGrath said the goal is to negotiate a long-term recycling contract. The city has bidders, but McGrath said he could not disclose them.
“It’s sort of the best arrangement we could put together,” McGrath said. “And we suspect that as we go forward, we’re going to continue paying a premium to have material recycled. There’s no interest in stopping recycling. That’s not in the plan at all. What we’re going to do is find the most economical approach we can have.”
McGrath said the city hired a recycling director, Kyle Lewis, in December after the position had gone vacant for months. McGrath believes the department will sign a new longer term recycling contract in a few months.
Municipalities across the country are dealing with the same problems. Some have scaled back recycling, others have limited what residents can put out, or even charged residents directly to drop off recycling at a municipal facility.
Maurice Sampson, Philadelphia’s first recycling coordinator in the 1980s and a current member of its Solid Waste and Recycling Advisory Committee, said he is sympathetic to the bind city officials find themselves in. But he also said they shouldn’t have put all their eggs in one basket. China was always a balloon waiting to pop when it came to recycling, he said.
Another factor: Municipalities went to single-stream recycling. That means items that no longer have a recycling value are mixed with those that do, contaminating loads.
“What’s happened is that we’ve lost our markets,” Sampson said. “And that’s the reality that just needs to be accepted. The stream is filled with what we called ‘wish’ recycling."
Sampson is still optimistic. He said government officials need to work with industry and develop a network of markets within the United States for recycling.
“This is resolvable,” he said. "It’s not as hopeless as it looks.”