Last month, the Inquirer uncovered what should have come as a surprise to the many, dutiful recyclers in Philadelphia. The city, it turns out, was being forced to burn roughly half of the recycling it collected in an incinerator.

There are several reasons for this. The main reason is that China, which had been accepting mountains of materials from around the globe, has changed its standards and is refusing much of what the country used to take. They got wise to the fact that a lot of the materials we were selling them were contaminated by leftover liquid, food and other materials. That standards change suddenly made the cost for recycling skyrocket as recycling companies could no longer get the money they had been for materials.

And, to that point, Philadelphia officials have identified the sections of the city that have the highest rate of recycling dirty and unfit materials and simply earmarked recycling collected there to be sent straight to a Chester County incinerator. No matter how much information is out there, people continue to recycle greasy pizza boxes, or toss plastic bags full of cans in the recycling, where plastic bags simply don’t belong.

The issue has forced Philadelphia and cities across the United States to start thinking about their recycling plans as programs that used to at least pay for themselves have suddenly become a big bill.

“We’re approaching a point of reckoning that we have had not to debate in the U.S. for a long time, in terms of how we deal with our municipal solid waste and consumer recyclables,” Kristina Costa, a senior fellow focused on climate change and energy policy at the Center for American Progress, told Maddie Stone, editor of the online journal Earther. “If as a public policy goal we want to continue encouraging recycling, the time is basically now to have a really serious conversation about what policy changes … need to be put in place.”

While recycling programs have clearly been successful at guiding approximately 25 percent of our total trash output – more than 250 million tons of it – a great deal of that recycled trash is extraneous. If you look at charts, the amount we’ve placed in landfills since 1980 has changed very little – roughly 150 million tons. Almost all of the materials we’re sticking in recycling bins is stuff we didn’t have in 1980 – much of it plastic in the form of water bottles and take-out containers and other disposables.

Recycling is still a noble goal, but with it we have to find ways to reduce the output of plastics. It’s very difficult to do today when wrapping goods in plastic has become affordable and pervasive. But the costs down the line, when recycling really becomes more difficult, expensive or even close to impossible, could be far greater.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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