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Mike Walker has just finished his lunch in the cafeteria at PCC Community Markets in the Green Lake neighborhood of Seattle. On the small table in front of him is a plastic sandwich wrapper, a potato chip bag and an energy drink can. Only one of those three is destined for a recycling bin. And even then, there’s no guarantee that the can will end up recycled.

“That makes me feel pretty terrible,” says Walker, 36, of Seattle. But he adds that he still does what he can to minimize the waste he creates and maximize the chances it will be recycled. When he shops for his produce, he either doesn’t use a bag or opts for paper over plastic. And he cleans all his recyclable plastics and cardboard before putting them in the bin at home for curbside pickup.

“I do that with the full knowledge that much of it goes straight to the landfill,” he says.

While a little jaded, Walker is among many Americans who have not given up on the country’s struggling recycling program–long a cornerstone of environmental consciousness. But the landscape has changed in the last few years as China and other countries shut down the flow of recyclables from the U.S.

A new report by The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit funded by large packaging producers, found that 54 towns in America as of November have fully dropped their curbside recycling programs. For now, that number amounts to less than 1 percent of the 69.8 million U.S. households with curbside service.

But the report cautions that the figure could rise sharply as hundreds of contracts for curbside pickup and recycling are reset in the next few years. Already, many municipalities that still have curbside recycling have stopped collecting certain materials or started charging fees to customers.

 “Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take a bit of investment to improve the story,” said Kate O’Neill, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the report. “But this is not a broken system that should be abandoned.”

A struggling system

Since the 1980s, curbside recycling programs across the U.S. have aimed to capture used materials and prep them for reuse in the manufacturing of new products. Each year, the average American single-family household generates 768 pounds of recyclable stuff, from cardboard boxes to soda cans to shampoo bottles, according to the report, published in February.

Yet fewer than one out of every three pounds of that material is ever recycled.

For decades, the U.S. shipped about 70% of its waste to China. After those doors closed in late 2017, the supply-demand equation for recyclables has changed. Exacerbated by a plethora of cheaper raw materials and changes in packaging design, the value of collected curbside recyclables dropped from more than $90 per ton in July 2017 to around $30 per ton in late 2019, according to the report.

Processing facilities are no longer making enough money to cover their costs, and many are passing the difference along to communities.

“To stay open, they are asking community recycling programs to pay processing fees,” said Scott Mouw, senior director of strategy and research for The Recycling Partnership, and author of the 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report. “In many cases, those fees exceed the disposal fee at a landfill.”

Jackson, Mississippi, is among the communities that has ceased its curbside pickup. “We couldn’t afford the program anymore,” Lakesha Weathers, Solid Waste Manager for the City of Jackson, told FairWarning in an email.

The new report details the grim situation across the country. Overall, 59 percent of homes have access to curbside recycling. Of those who have it, 72 percent use it. And even those participants are not always perfect recyclers. A lot of recyclable materials land in garbage cans, and an estimated 17 percent of what Americans put in carts and bins is not recyclable or is too dirty to be recycled.

“There is a lot of confusion about recycling,” said Alex Truelove, director of the Zero Waste Campaign with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “I feel for the consumer in their struggles to figure out, ‘Is this thing I’m recycling even recyclable?’ And that changes as markets change.”

Whose problem?

Waste Management, the largest garbage and recycling service provider in the U.S., now posts details about what can be recycled directly on its recycling carts, and also shares that information through mailings, radio and social media.

Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management, underscored two critical steps he said are necessary for a viable recycling program: Ensuring people put the right items into recycling bins, and that those same people buy their next products or packaging with recycled content.

Yet Mark Murray, executive director of the nonprofit Californians Against Waste, wants to the see the onus shifted away from the public. “The fact that China stopped accepting poorly sorted mixed paper and totally unrecyclable mixed plastics isn’t a flaw with recycling,” he said. “The flaw is with efforts by waste companies and brand owners and well-intentioned local governments to make us believe everything is recyclable. We can’t magically make things recyclable when they are not.”

Traditionally, recyclable materials include clean plastic-free paper and glass, as well as #1 and #2 plastic, which includes the majority of disposable bottles and yogurt tubs. Plastic-coated paper, flexible plastic pouches and #3 through #7 plastics remain cost-prohibitive, if not impossible, to recycle. While facilities have begun using artificial intelligence and robots to speed up the sorting of materials, and investing in technologies to better clean and break down material, such efforts can only go so far.

Most plastic wrappers and chip bags remain destined for landfills, much to Walker’s chagrin.

“The answer from my perspective is to be honest to the public about which materials are currently recyclable and which are not,” said Murray. “Armed with that honest information, I’m going to be a better shopper and will stop buying all this unrecyclable plastic and plastic-coated paper.”

He also emphasized that we are never going to recycle our way out of the waste problem. “At the end of the day, our level of material consumption is not sustainable whether we put it in a curbside recycle bin or not,” Murray added.

Looking upstream

Moves by both government and industry are also crucial for improving the system and keeping recyclables out of landfills and incinerators, according to experts and advocates.

If a company creates complex packaging with multiple layers of material, O’Neill suggested, then it should bear more responsibility than a company that produces an easily recyclable container such as an aluminum can.

Legislation is emerging that would do just that. Maine has drafted a bill that would shift the cost of disposing packaging materials from consumers to private companies. Washington State is pursuing similar laws, modeled after British Columbia’s extended producer responsibility system. One bill, which has cleared the Washington state House of Representatives, would mandate minimum levels of recycled plastic in beverage bottles. The state could then impose fees on manufacturers missing those targets. And in California, a bill is pending that, by 2030, would largely ban all single-use packaging that isn’t recycled.

“It’s not a mandate on the public,” said Murray. “The mandate is on the producers.”

Meanwhile, ambitious legislation also is in the works at the federal level, including a bill introduced by Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California. The “Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act” would ban certain types of single-use containers, require manufacturers to use more recycled content in their packaging and shift the cost of recycling to plastics producers.

The plastics industry has pushed back. Keith Christman, director of the American Chemistry Council’s plastics division, claimed that stopping the construction of new plastic facilities would stunt economic growth, reported E&E News. “The moratorium and bans on plastic products are likely to increase environmental impacts while limiting access to a material that enables society to do more with less,” he was quoted as saying.

Udall offered a different take. Corporations “have fooled the American people into thinking that plastic is convenient and that if we just recycle hard enough, we’ll clean up the mess,” he said at the bill’s unveiling in February. “That is not true.”

While the federal bill is unlikely to pass, Murray said, it could prove a useful model for state governments. In the meantime, he recommended that the public simply “continue, and feel good about, recycling the materials we’ve always recycled.”

Kathe McGrath of Port Orchard, Wash., began recycling more than two decades ago. She remembers some difficulty when she started. “We were used to throwing everything into our garbage,” she said. “But once we got into it, it was easy. Now we have more in our recycle bin than in our garbage can.”

“I would never go back,” added McGrath. “All in all, we should still do what we’ve been doing.”

Walker echoed the sentiment. “I still do recycle systematically, even if in vain,” he said. “I’ll try to keep up the habit in hope that one day it is all actually recycled into something.”

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