Background on the Recycling Crisis
Hopefully by now, you’ve heard that recycling has changed in Lancaster County. Residents should place only the “Big 4” in their recycling bins: 1) corrugated cardboard, 2) plastic bottles and jugs with a neck, 3) metal food and beverage cans, and 4) glass bottles and jars.
But you may not have heard that Lancaster County is not the only community impacted by recent recycling changes. The “recycling crisis” has created significant challenges for recycling programs across the United States. So, how did we get here?
For many years, well-meaning “wishful recyclers” have incorrectly believed that most things are recyclable. In part, this misconception grew from the waste industry’s desire to facilitate a convenient process for recyclers. The message was: “Put it all in your bin. We’ll sort it later.” Unfortunately, this convenience turned problematic when contamination levels increased. Contamination happens when people place materials in the recycling bin that do not belong. And the largest importer of recyclable materials from the U.S. said “no more.”
Previously, China was the largest consumer of recyclable materials generated in the United States. Growing frustrated by high contamination in imported recycling bales, China announced their “National Sword” campaign in summer 2017. This initiative enforced a crackdown on imported waste and communicated China’s intent to ban most recyclable materials, including post-consumer plastic and mixed paper. Among the changes was also the announcement of a new quality standard prohibiting contamination to .5%, which was significantly more stringent than the previously acceptable rate of 5%. And the hits kept coming. In July 2018, China announced their plan to ban all imported recycled commodities by the end of 2018.
So where does this leave us? Unfortunately, the United States does not have enough domestic demand for recyclable materials to replace the volume China previously bought. Meaning, the market is saturated with more recyclable material than our country can use. An important point to remember is that something can only be recycled if there is a demand for that material, by a manufacturer, to be turned into a new product for consumers to buy.
This big shift in the market caused significant ripple effects, including lost revenues, higher processing and capital costs for material recovery facilities (MRFs), higher transportation costs, fewer outlets for materials and increased stockpiling issues. MRFs (re: facilities that separate, bale and market the recyclables you put in your bin) are now in a financial crisis. A reset is imperative to fix the contamination problem and help make recycling sustainable.
In Lancaster County, we believe the solution is three-fold: 1) simplicity, 2) consistency, 3) and awareness. We’re simplifying the recycling process by asking people to only place the “Big 4” in their recycling bin. We’re standardizing the message by working with municipalities, haulers and business partners to all follow the same guidelines across the county. And we’re raising awareness by publicizing the need to Recycle Right through an integrated PSA campaign, so people can learn to recycle right.
We know this is a huge shift for our community, and change will not come overnight. But if we work together, perhaps recycling can be better than it was before. Let’s Recycle Right Lancaster!