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The state of recycling in America

With summer approaching, the resort town of Ocean City, Maryland, will soon see an influx of tourists, their coolers filled with water bottles and soda cans. Vacationers here can also take a break from recycling and toss all their trash — every last bit of paper, aluminum and plastic — in the garbage can, guilt-free. The city ditched its recycling program five years ago, saying that it had become too costly.

“It was something that needed to be done,” said solid-waste manager Steven Brown, who says Ocean City has saved about a million dollars by contracting to incinerate all its trash.

But don’t call it burning the trash — that’s old school. Here, as in Palm Beach County, Florida, it’s the cleaner-sounding “waste-to-energy” program. And with the cost of recycling climbing each time the price of oil drops, it’s looking better every day, especially as some worry that America has achieved peak recycling with a rate stubbornly hovering around 34 percent.

It’s probably coincidence, but recycling levels began to plateau about the time John Tierney wrote a now infamous piece for The New York Times Magazine, titled “Recycling is Garbage.” In it, Tierney said recycling may be America’s “most wasteful activity” and railed against government-mandated programs that created “a glut of paper, glass and plastic that no one wanted to buy.” This was in 1996, 16 years after Woodbury, N.J., was the first American municipality to implement mandatory recycling, with other cities eagerly following.

Recycling rates climbed steadily in the 1980s and 1990s. There has been scant growth in the past decade, however, despite cities’ enthusiastic attempts to engage their citizens. (Residents of Mt. Pleasant, S.C., qualified for random cash prizes last fall if they put stickers on their trash cans that indicated the kinds of recyclables accepted.)

In a 2012 report, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that for every 4.38 pounds of trash they produce, Americans recycle about 1.51 pounds. When broken down by types of material, the rate can drop even lower. The recycling rate for plastics is about 23 percent, despite the billion water bottles sold every year.

One man’s trash

An anemic recycling rate is not unique to America. In the United Kingdom, they call it “green fatigue” — an initial burst of enthusiasm at the prospect of saving the planet, worn down by years completing tedious tasks like rinsing out peanut butter jars or prying off labels with no discernible difference to the environment. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch still floats between California and Japan, a sickening amalgamation of fishing nets, particles of plastic and random ocean-faring detritus. A plastic bottle will wear down — after 450 years.

The major problem with recycling for municipalities, however, is not the stagnant participation rates, but the cost.

In Ocean City, where year-round residents number just 7,000, the city reached a point where it could no longer afford to recycle, said Brown, the solid-waste manager. Instead, they rewrote the old adage about trash and treasure, changing it to “One man’s trash is another man’s fuel source.”

The city loads its trash into tractor-trailers that truck the waste to a commercial incinerator in Fairfax, Virginia; the heat and steam turn turbines that produce electricity. For every ton of trash that is burned, 670 kilowatts of electricity are created, Brown said. After incineration, any remaining metals are recycled.

Some Ocean City residents didn’t like the idea at first, “but most understood that it was a cost-saving venture for us,” Brown said. Those who wish to recycle still have the option of taking recyclables to county facilities, and Ocean City still recycles the more profitable white metals, and offers bulky item pickup for its residents.

Fired up

Recycling costs cities and towns in dual collection and sorting. Sometimes there is a payoff in the sale of recyclables, but that small profit shrinks further as oil prices diminish. When oil prices are low, it’s cheaper to make new plastic than recycle, leading one New York recycler to complain to a reporter for Crain’s, “Prices for recycled plastic are so low now, it’s not worth stealing anymore.” New plastic now costs 67 cents per pound, compared to 72 percent for recycled, Crain’s Plastics News says.

Of course, there’s another way that cities can profit from recycling: Charge for it. The town of Worcester, Massachusetts, grappling with how to pay for its recycling program, recently proposed monthly fees for it. While the goal, ironically, is to keep more recyclables out of landfills, one councilman told the Worcester Telegram, “It bothers me that the people who will hurt the most are the ones who faithfully and conscientiously recycle.” The matter is scheduled for a vote on May 20, but many Worcester residents are lobbying against it.

It’s unlikely the nation will ever enter a post-recycling age, but with many towns considering incineration, one Florida county is emerging as a model with its three-pronged approach to solid waste. Palm Beach County made headlines when it proposed opening a massive incinerator that would also accept waste from outside the county. It is part of an integrated program that also includes landfills and recycling, said Willie Puz, director of public relations and recycling for the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County.

The county chose to build the $670 million incinerator when the local residents rejected its alternative: a new and larger landfill near the Everglades. When it fires up in June, it is expected to burn a million tons of garbage each year and add 30 years to the life of the existing landfill.

In addition, the county operates seven household hazardous waste drop-off sites and a biosolids processing facility that convers wastewater sludge to fertilizer, leaving the landfill as a “last resort” for waste.

As for the nation’s seemingly lackluster rates, Puz offers a sliver of hope: that reduced tonnage could reflect, however, small, a society-wide reduction in consumption. For example, with more people reading online, fewer print newspapers are published, and many of those that are have smaller dimensions. As manufacturers look to find ways to shrink packaging, even plastic bottles and aluminum cans take up less space. Ten years ago, Puz said, 31 bottles made a pound of glass; now 49 do.

Jennifer Graham is an East Coast journalist and author. On Twitter, she’s @grahamtoday.


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