Recycling is getting harder and costing more

Industry changes pose new challenges

Created date

August 6th, 2018
a woman in a black and white striped shirt carries cardboard in a green bin emblazoned with a white recycling symbol

Recyclables packed into cubes and stacked on top of one another

Not long ago the city of Philadelphia received $65 for every ton of recyclables it collected. 

Today Philadelphia taxpayers shell out $38 per ton to get rid of the city’s recyclable waste.

In Cordova, Ill., residents have been advised of a planned rate hike to their waste management bills. The additional 39 cents per month is needed to cover rising recycling costs.

Municipalities across the nation are struggling to keep once-profitable recycling programs going even though those programs now cost taxpayer dollars.


For many years, the U.S., along with many other nations, shipped recyclables to China. However, last year China grew tired of being thought of as “the world’s garbage dump” and announced major changes.

The changes went into effect in January 2018. Since then, Chinese recycling plants no longer accept certain kinds of plastics. They are also far more choosey about what they let in and are quick to turn away loads they readily would have accepted just last year.

This has created a huge problem for waste management companies and local governments everywhere.

There are reports of towns stockpiling their collected recycling until they figure out what to do with it.

Other towns are taking recycling loads to the same landfill they use for general garbage because, for them, recycling is no longer financially viable.

Effective recycling

Consumers have grown accustomed to sorting their plastic waste into one bin and their paper into another. For some, that’s where their participation in the recycling process ends.

They may not realize that before something can be recycled, it has to be clean and dry. Any bit of grease, residue or food waste on a recyclable is considered contamination. Too many contaminated items in a load is the main reason the Chinese turn loads away.

Recycling authorities urge consumers to thoroughly wash anything that goes into the recycling bin. Rinse out that milk jug or can of soup. Put sturdier plastic, tin, and glass waste into the dishwasher.

If a pizza delivery box is full of grease, don’t recycle it. And thoroughly rinse out takeout containers.

As for paper recycling, cardboard, newspapers, magazines, and telephone directories can be recycled. Paper recycling contaminants include the aforementioned greasy pizza box or anything soiled by food waste or grease. Also, separate the plastic from the address windows on paper envelopes.

Coffee cups

A consumer survey conducted in 2011 showed that 80% of consumers thought that disposable coffee cups, the ones used by Starbucks and many other coffee shops, are recyclable. They are not. A thin layer of plastic coats the paper to make the cup stronger and more resilient.

In order to recycle these coffee cups, the plastic needs to be stripped away from the paper. It’s not something anyone would or even could do. Those cups should go into the regular trash. Too many coffee cups and other nonrecyclables mixed into a recycling load is another reason loads are rejected.


Not all plastic is the same when it comes to recycling. That’s why manufacturers put a code on the bottom of plastic products to identify what kind of plastic it is. Look for the number in the center of the triangular recycling symbol.

Clear soft drink and water bottles are typically made from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, for short. The bottom of PET plastics are marked with a one. When recycled, PET plastics are used to make carpet fibers, fleece clothing, and new food and beverage containers.

PET plastics are fairly easy to recycle as are the number twos—items like milk containers and grocery bags made from high-density polyethylene. Also recyclable are number threes made from polyvinyl chloride. It’s the plastic they use to make those hard blister packages that are so difficult to open.

For plastics labeled four and above, check with your local recycling authority. They are among the plastics no longer accepted by China.


Despite the fact that the paragraph above says that plastic grocery bags are recyclable, don’t put plastic grocery bags into your recycling bin. Those bags seriously clog recycling machinery. Every so often, recycling plants have to shut down so they can clean out all the plastic grocery bags stuck in gears and other parts of recycling machines.

The best way to recycle plastic grocery bags is to take them back to the store. Many groceries have bag returns on site.

Diapers present another huge recycling challenge. At this point, diapers cannot be recycled, but that doesn’t stop many consumers from putting them in their recycling bins.

Viable diaper recyclers are on the horizon, but for now dispose of diapers in your regular trash.

The dramatic policy change in China has led to a lot of changes and a lot of confusion. Even if you’ve been recycling for years, it may be time to check in with your local recycling authority to see if they’ve made any changes you should know about.