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Why the recycling industry is in the dumps

Associated Press Workers at EL Harvey & Sons, a waste and recycling company in Westborough, Mass., remove plastic shopping bags from the clogged rollers of a sorting machine. Recycling programs across the United States are shutting down or scaling back because of rising costs as well as contamination at the curbside bin.

ALBANY, N.Y. — A crash in the global market for recyclables is forcing communities across the United States to make hard choices about whether they can afford to keep recycling or should simply send all those bottles, cans and plastic containers to the landfill.

Mountains of paper have piled up at sorting centers, worthless. Cities and towns that once made money on recyclables are instead paying high fees to processing plants to take them. Some financially strapped recycling processors have shut down entirely, leaving municipalities with no choice but to dump or incinerate their recyclables.

"There's no market. We're paying to get rid of it," says Ben Harvey, president of EL Harvey & Sons, which handles recyclables from about 30 communities at its sorting facility in Westborough, Mass.

It all stems from a policy shift by China, long the world's leading recyclables buyer. At the beginning of the year it enacted an antipollution program that closed its doors to loads of waste paper, metals or plastic unless they're 99.5 percent pure. That's an unattainable standard at U.S. single-stream recycling processing plants designed to churn out bales of paper or plastic that are, at best, 97 percent free of contaminants such as foam cups and food waste.

The resulting glut of recyclables has caused prices to plummet from levels already depressed by other economic forces, including lower prices for oil, a key ingredient in plastics.

The three largest publicly traded residential waste-hauling and recycling companies in North America — Waste Management, Republic Services and Waste Connections — reported steep drops in recycling revenues in their second-quarter financial results. Houston-based Waste Management reported its average price for recyclables was down 43 percent from the previous year.

"A year ago, a bale of mixed paper was worth about $100 per ton; today we have to pay about $15 to get rid of it," says Richard Coupland, vice president for municipal sales at Phoenix-based Republic, which handles 75 million tons of municipal solid waste and 8 million tons of recyclables nationwide annually. "Smaller recycling companies aren't able to stay in business and are shutting down."

Kirkwood, Mo., announced plans this summer to end curbside recycling after a St. Louis-area processing facility shut down. Officials in Rock Hill, S.C., were surprised to learn that recyclables collected at curbside were being dumped because of a lack of markets. Lack of markets led officials to suspend recycling programs in Gouldsboro, Maine; DeBary; Franklin, N.H.; and Adrian Township, Mich. Programs have been scaled back in Flagstaff, Ariz.; La Crosse, Wis.; and Kankakee, Ill.

Other communities are maintaining recycling programs but taking a financial hit as regional processors have raised rates to offset losses. Richland, Wash., is now paying $122 a ton for Waste Management to take its recycling; last year, the city was paid $16 a ton for the materials. Stamford, Conn., received $95,000 for recyclables last year; the city's new contract requires it to pay $700,000.

A big part of the problem, besides lower commodity prices overall, is sloppy recycling.

A third of the material picked up by collection trucks is non-recyclable "contaminants" such as garden hoses, picnic coolers and broken lawnmowers. Workers have to pull that out and truck it to a landfill, adding to overall costs. Plastic bags contaminate bales of other materials and tangle machinery. Spilled ketchup and greasy pizza boxes turn otherwise marketable material into garbage.

A range of initiatives have been launched to get people to recycle right. Chicago is putting "oops" tags on curbside recycling bins with improper contents and leaving them uncollected. Rhode Island is airing "Let's Recycle Right" ads.

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