The global market for recycling has changed dramatically over the last year. And it’s already trickling down to what happens curbside.

If you’re like me, the recycling you drag to the curb for pickup includes cans, sales flyers, soda bottles, yogurt tubs and the clamshells that raspberries and strawberries are packaged in. I put a lot of those in the blue bin. But that might be about to change.

Shawn Wigle is the Program Supervisor of Environmental Services for the City of Pittsburgh, where I live.

“For us, it’s business as usual,” Wigle says. “We’re taking everything today that we took last year.”

So that’s the usual glass, paper, metal cans and plastics with the numbers 1 through 5, and 7 on the container. The number is inside that little triangle with an arrow, and it tells you how to recycle an item. Or does it?

LISTEN: “How You Recycle Plastic is About to Change”

“We’re going to be probably getting away from those [numbers] in the near future,” Wigle says. “In theory they work great, but they’re very confusing.”

That’s because not all plastic is created equal.

The number on the bottom of that strawberry container is #1. That’s PET, or polyethylene terephthalate. It’s also a type of plastic that soda and water bottles are made from. But those bottles are a lot more valuable than food containers. Bottles can be cleaned and melted down to make more bottles, or other products like carpets or park benches. But that’s not what happens to many other shapes and numbers of plastics.

Erika Young works in public relations for Waste Management Inc. in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The company has recycling contracts with businesses and municipalities in the region. Recently she took me on a short tour of a part of their Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) on Neville Island, near Pittsburgh.

We wear hard hats and watch a parade of bottles and bags as they move from a pile three times our height on the tipping floor, up a belt to a platform where they’re being sorted by hand. Below the line are residue bays where items that can’t be recycled are dropped.

“So all of that material in there is going to end up at the landfill,” Young says.

Workers pick out things that could hurt the machines, from plastic bags to garden hoses. We even see a bowling ball.

“Your strawberry clamshells might not be in this refuse pile,” Young says. “But before they get to the end bailing, they will probably end up in a refuse pile.”

Young says later on down the line, the cardboard and paper material are sorted with a sizing screen. The paper rolls over the top because it’s flat. But those flimsy, plastic berry containers also fold flat, so they could end up with the paper. Young says that’s contamination, and it’s a bigger problem now.

Erika Young, from Waste Management, in front of a pile of recycling on the tipping floor at the company’s Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Photo: Kara Holsopple

Until last year, a lot of plastic and paper recycling was sold from facilities like this one to China. But at the beginning of the year China stopped importing most plastic waste and mixed paper, like junk mail, as a result if its National Sword Policy. The country has its own trash problems. And China will only accept a prohibitively low amount of contamination in the materials it still takes. The number is 0.5 percent. Young says that leaves sorting facilities with few options.

“If we don’t have a market to sell this material, it essentially is not recyclable,” Young says.

So those strawberry containers and yogurt cups have to come out of the waste stream. Even glass has a contamination problem, because in a single stream facility like this one, bottle caps and other small items get mixed up with it. Young says Waste Management is trying to get the word out to its municipal customers that it really only wants paper and cardboard, cans and those plastic jugs, jars and bottles with a narrower top, for which there is still a market.

Anne Germain is Vice President of Technical and Regulatory Affairs with the National Waste and Recycling Association.

“We understand why China is doing this, but the timeline that they set for it was so short, it didn’t allow for alternative markets to develop,” Germaine says.

Germain says even the alternative markets in Asia, like Vietnam and Thailand, are turning away foreign recycling because they’re overwhelmed with the surplus. Building similar facilities in the U.S. will take time and investment. Germaine says recycling companies are getting squeezed. The cost of doing business is higher because they have to pay to send more material to the landfill, and they’re getting less money for material they can still find a market for. Those costs will eventually be passed on to their customers.

Recycling still works, but we have to think of it as a commodity, not just a way to deal with our trash.

Justin Stockdale, is Western Regional Director of Pennsylvania Resources Council, a statewide environmental group. He jokes that he’s been working in the dumpster for 25 years, and says he doesn’t want people to be discouraged by all of this.

“It’s heartbreaking to say that, ‘well I buy my thing in that package because I think it’s recyclable. Now you’re telling me it’s not. I’ve changed my life to support recycling. And now it’s all been for naught.’”

Stockdale says recycling still works, but we have to think of it as a commodity, not just a way to deal with our trash. He says single stream recycling, where we put all of the materials into one bin, is easier for consumers. But it was instituted about a decade ago to grow the volume of the material that recyclers actually wanted, like those #1 and #2 plastic bottles. Stockdale says one solution might be collecting other materials the old-fashioned way, like we used to recycle in the 1980s, when we sorted glass and paper at home, then dropped them off at a dedicated facility.

“I think we need to think about this as an opportunity to get it right, and to do better,” Stockdale says.

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