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OM in the News: The Hidden Problems of Recycling

March 21, 2019

I am not an adamant tree hugger, but my family certainly takes our household recycling seriously, as I am sure many of you do. So it came as a bit of a shock to find that our local garbage company (which sends separate trucks for normal garbage and recycled goods), took our recycling can and mixed it with the normal can. It turns out they ship it all to the same landfill since the city can’t afford to sort and recycle anymore. The New York Times now reports (March 16, 2019) that “recycling, for decades an almost reflexive effort by American households and businesses to reduce waste and help the environment, is collapsing in many parts of the country.”

Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator. The Memphis airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. (The airport is keeping its recycling bins in place to preserve “the culture” of recycling among passengers and employees). Hundreds of cities across the country have quietly canceled recycling programs.

Prompting this nationwide reckoning is China, which until 2018 had been a big buyer of recyclable material collected in the U.S. That stopped when China determined that too much trash was mixed in with recyclable materials like cardboard and certain plastics. After that, Thailand and India started to accept more imported scrap, but even they are imposing new restrictions. With fewer buyers, recycling companies are recouping their lost profits by charging cities more, in some cases 4 times what they charged last year.

Amid the soaring costs, cities and towns are making hard choices about whether to raise taxes, cut other municipal services or abandon an effort that took hold during the environmental movement of the 1970s. The troubles with recycling have amplified calls for limiting waste at its source. Measures like banning plastic bags and straws, long pushed by environmental groups, are gaining traction more widely.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. As a student, what is your obligation to recycle now that you know it may be economically inefficient?
  2. Should taxpayers subsidize recycling?
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