Perfect Storm Hits U.S. Recycling Industry

Aug 20, 2019
Originally published on August 20, 2019 11:43 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Putting out the recycling. It's a weekly ritual in so many communities around the country, a moment when people can feel like they're doing a good thing for the planet. Forty years ago, one small town helped get recycling started in the United States. NPR's Rebecca Davis paid a visit to see how they're now dealing with the big, complicated industry that recycling has become.

REBECCA DAVIS, BYLINE: It's Thursday, and Donald Sanderson is wrestling a large blue recycling bin across his front lawn in Woodbury, N.J.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSTLING)

DONALD SANDERSON: Plastic, soda cans, cardboard.

DAVIS: Sanderson is 90, and recycling is close to his heart. After all, he's the one who got recycling started here as a city council member four decades ago.

SANDERSON: They call me the father of recycling. I don't know if that's good or bad, tell you the truth.

DAVIS: It was the late 1970s, and at the time, curbside recycling was practically nonexistent. Trash just went to the landfill. But that was costing the town thousands of dollars in fees, and the landfill was filling up.

SANDERSON: Kinsey landfill was about to close.

DAVIS: Sanderson called around, and he found out that there were markets for some of that trash. Nearby companies would buy it and reuse it. So he said, let's pass a law that requires residents to put their glass, metal and paper out on the curb in separate buckets. Many thought Sanderson was nuts. Newspaper editorials tore him apart. People worried their taxes would go up.

SANDERSON: They dumped trash on my lawn. I would open the door - and they would dump it the night before, and when I came out in morning I saw it was there.

DAVIS: Did people dump a lot of trash on your lawn, or what was...

SANDERSON: Just enough to irritate me. Let's put it that way.

DAVIS: So Sanderson got the word out about just how much the landfill was costing the town and how much recycling could save.

SANDERSON: Then all of a sudden, I was a great guy. (Laughter).

DAVIS: The city council voted. Sanderson won.

SANDERSON: And that's how we got started.

DAVIS: It was 1981, and the small town of Woodbury, N.J., became a pioneer in recycling and, they claim, the first town in the Unites States to adopt a mandatory curbside recycling program. Word soon spread that recycling was saving Woodbury money, and similar programs cropped up around the country. At first, they were small and local like Woodbury's.

Martin Bourque is executive director of the Ecology Center, which operates residential recycling in Berkeley, Calif.

MARTIN BOURQUE: When we started recycling, it was monthly collection of bundled newspaper at the curb, and it went to a local pulper who made egg cartons for the local egg industry.

DAVIS: Then in the 1980s, plastic packaging came along. At first, it was just beverage bottles. But plastic was an irresistible material, partly because it was cheap to produce and transport. And soon, everything, it seemed, was made of or came packaged in plastic. The U.S. recycling infrastructure could not keep up. And then China and other Asian countries came along and said, we'll buy your recycling, including all that plastic. This helped take pressure off the industry for a while.

On the flip side, it meant the U.S. recycling industry didn't need to keep developing in terms of infrastructure and markets for recycled goods. Meanwhile, towns and cities wanted households to recycle more. So they came up with a way to make it easier. They called it single stream.

MONICA GISMONDI: Good concept, in theory, if it worked the way it was supposed to.

DAVIS: Monica Gismondi is recycling coordinator for Gloucester County, where Woodbury's located.

GISMONDI: They gave everybody a 96-gallon toter (ph), and they told all residents, put everything in this one bin, and then we'll take it to the facility and the facility will sort it out.

DAVIS: But one unintended consequence of single stream, it made people feel like they could throw everything into those bins? And that, Gismondi says, has become a costly pain in the neck for the sorting facilities.

GISMONDI: And they were getting the rubber hoses in there and, literally, the kitchen sink, and the bathroom toilets, and the bowling balls and the work boots.

DAVIS: And more and more plastic made from complicated mixes of materials that could not be recycled. You can see the impact at facilities like this one, where household recycling is brought to be sorted, baled and sold.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

KEVIN CARDUCCI: Want to see this work of art back here?

DAVIS: I do.

CARDUCCI: (Laughter). Cool.

DAVIS: Kevin Carducci is part owner and plant manager at Omni Recycling in Pitman, N.J. Trucks from Woodbury and other towns stream in and dump their haul.

CARDUCCI: We'll start right at the tip floor, where the material's dumped.

DAVIS: Standing on the plant floor is like being inside an elaborate marble run, with conveyor belts going up with some materials and down with others.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE SORTING MATERIALS)

CARDUCCI: This is one of our optical sorters. And you can see it's actually separating the No. 1's and No. 2 plastics.

DAVIS: The machinery segregates the materials Carducci can sell, like those plastic bottles, from what he can't. He points to an enormous pile.

CARDUCCI: To your right are all the bags that have came off the system in the last four hours.

DAVIS: Wow. I mean, I have to say, that's a huge pile of plastic bags.

CARDUCCI: Isn't that amazing?

DAVIS: And that's just plastic bags.

CARDUCCI: That's just plastic bags. The screens get cleaned three times a day to remove all those bags.

DAVIS: Then there's all the other plastics - pouches, film wrap, chip bags, wrappers, tubs, clam shells, PVC pipes, toys. Carducci says this stuff should never have gone into a recycling bin.

CARDUCCI: I know I keep stressing this fact, but this is all just the plastics that are nonrecyclable that came in this morning.

DAVIS: For years, sorting facilities in the U.S. could ship a lot of this type of plastic to China, which was willing to sort through it. But the nonrecyclables ended up making a huge mess on both land and in the ocean. But then China said, enough. So now facilities like Omni are stuck.

CARDUCCI: And it cost over - I'm trying to think - probably over a million dollars last year to remove all this residue and bags, which is not supposed to even be at the facility.

DAVIS: Carducci will recoup those costs from the taxpayers. Each month, he bills Woodbury and other towns for having processed and disposed of their nonrecyclable trash. And that's one reason why local communities are now paying to recycle instead of saving money like they used to. Carducci says everyone would be better off if companies stopped making things out of plastic that can't be recycled.

CARDUCCI: That's on them. You know what I mean? That is on them. They need to change.

DAVIS: And until they do, Kevin Carducci will continue to cart off the plastics he can't recycle to the landfill. Rebecca Davis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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