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OM in the News: The Fraught Future of Recycling

February 21, 2020

The American recycling industry is in crisis — and cities are on the front lines.

The economics undergirding the U.S. recycling system have fallen apart, writes Energy and the Environment (Feb. 15, 2020). Unable to absorb the extra cost, some cities are opting to kill recycling programs altogether — just as public concerns about climate change are ratcheting up. Why?  (1) China, the biggest buyer of U.S. recycled materials, has closed its doors. Before the ban, the U.S. was exporting around 70% of its waste to China. (2) Changing consumer behaviors have made the trash-sorting process more complex and expensive.

 A major Maryland recycling center area used to turn a healthy profit from processing recycled materials from a 50-mile radius. Now it’s having to pay vendors to truck material away. The Prince William County facility operates up to 22 hours a day to process about 550 tons of thrown out paper, plastic, aluminum and glass delivered there daily.

  • Despite the heavy machinery and increased automation involved, the process is still extremely dependent on humans.
  • On each shift, 28 “sorters” sift through the material as it rolls down a series of fast-moving conveyer belts. The workers spot and pull out non-recyclable trash from the stream so fast that they look like card dealers in a game of blackjack.
  • Contamination is a huge problem. People throw surprising things — Christmas trees, old carpet, shoes, diapers and even cinder blocks — into their recycling bins.


 About 60 other cities are struggling to make recycling work or have cancelled their programs. Others have stopped accepting glass, paper or plastics. (Baltimore County just admitted that it hasn’t recycled the glass its collected for the past 7 years). Some have seen massive increases in their costs. Omaha, Nebraska, received a single bid for recycling services for $4 million, twice the city’s budget. Milton, Massachusetts, experienced a 36% increase in recycling costs.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. How is this a Triple Bottom Line issue? (See Supp. 5 of your Heizer/Render/Munson OM text).
  2. What can companies, government, and society do?
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