In the wake of the turmoil caused by China’s rejection of contaminated U.S. recyclables and the rising cost of processing recyclables, cities need to understand some history and perhaps revert to strategies and organizations that started recycling and made it flourish from the 1960s through the early 2000s. These tried and true approaches can lower the cost of recycling and increase the value of recovered materials.
Citizens restart recycling
Spontaneous citizen activism restarted recycling in the U.S. after it declined in the decades following World War II, during which time recycling had been critical for providing supplies for American industry and keeping up morale on the home front.
Most analysts point to the Survival Walk coordinated by Cliff and Mary Humphrey in 1969 as the date of this rebirth. It was a march from San Diego to Sacramento, Calif., in opposition to climate warming and the Vietnam War and to promote environmental and social justice. Each night along their route, as a symbol of what Americans could do to improve materials management and to gain popular support, the marchers started a drop-off recycling station where local residents could deliver their source separated glass, metal, paper and plastic for recycling.
Just months later, the first Earth Day in 1970 caused an explosion of thousands of drop-off centers throughout the country. In 1972, Penny Hansen, recycling coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was asked, “What do recyclers want?” She answered, “More!”
Indeed, they did. Drop-off centers grew into scores of small curbside collection and commercial enterprises: the Richmond Recycling Station in Seattle; the Portland Recycling Team in Portland, Ore.; Garbagios in Eugene, Ore.; Haight Ashbury Community Recyclers in San Francisco; Recycling Unlimited in St. Paul, Minn.; Recycle Unlimited in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Palisades Recycling in Los Angeles; Solano Recyclers in San Diego; the DuPont Circle Neighborhood Ecology Corporation in Washington, D.C.
The organizers and proponents of these groups were citizens from all walks of life and from every corner of the country: airline attendants and pilots, physicists, teachers, retired business executives, medical doctors and nurses, lawyers, academics, caterers, urban planners, community and housing organizers, a standup comedian, homemakers, students of all ages, elected officials, a cowboy and many Native American tribes and associations. They were old and young, children and grandparents, rich and poor, black, brown and white, men and women. They brought their organizations to the cause as well: medical and lung associations, Duck Clubs, Sierra Clubs, universities, museums, school classes, faith groups, civic and cultural associations and unions. (1)
By the mid-1980s, cities were forced by popular demand to adopt citywide curbside services. The community-based enterprises were phased out, and recycling became mandatory in our cities. What seemed like a victory for recycling activists soon turned sour. City governments were indifferent and even hostile to recycling. They soon privatized services to get the problem out of their hair. That paved the way for the big waste hauling conglomerates to take over urban recycling by lowballing contracts to gain market share and then adjusting the contracts to their interests. They raised rates, cut out glass and plastic bag recycling and forced cities to halt local processing and ship materials up to 50 miles out of town for low-quality processing. And for industries’ convenience, they introduced single stream systems to cities, which called for collection of mixed recyclables as opposed to localized dual stream systems, which kept paper separate from other materials.
With the introduction of single waste streams, more people began to recycle due to the convenience of putting everything in one big container instead of having to sort and dispose of materials separately. Contamination levels reached 20 to 40 percent, greatly reducing the value of recyclables and increasing processing costs. (2)
U.S. recycling stagnated.
The chart above shows the rapid growth of recycling using dual stream collection until the early 2000s, when single stream replaced dual stream. Our recycling rates have stagnated ever since at 34 to 35 percent. More materials were placed in recycling carts, but as much as 40 percent could not be processed for recycling and ended up in landfills. As far as Wall Street was concerned, materials belonged in landfills because that way, waste company stock prices would stay high and they could continue to gobble up small and large competitors through stock acquisitions, mergers and buyouts.
If recycling had remained local, the nation could today be well over 50 percent recycling and composting.
The role of China
In 2018, the Chinese cut off all imported recyclables from the U.S. because of gross contamination of recycled materials being sent from the U.S.: the National Sword program limited contamination of recycling imports to 0.5 percent, meaning much of what it had been accepting was no longer of value to them.
This threw U.S. recycling into turmoil. Sloppy processing that produced contamination was no longer tolerated by Chinese industry for environmental and economic reasons. There was a public outcry in China over water and air pollution resulting from primitive plastic recycling methods. The cost of labor in China increased, making processing of waste-ridden, “dirty recycling” more expensive. The country that had been receiving about half of U.S. materials (including two-thirds of U.S. paper exports) was no longer an available market.
Market turmoil caused dozens of cities to cancel or reduce recycling efforts immediately after the import ban. But two years after the ban, investment in processing and end use manufacturing is expanding rapidly, especially in secondary paper production. There is a scramble to capture clean materials. The U.S. paper recycling industry, for example, is surging with close to 20 new plants all over the country. The low price of paper has attracted capital investment. (3) Ironically, Chinese companies that want to capture clean materials for their home industries are major investors endeavoring to capture the rich materials in the U.S. waste stream.
The entire market crisis caused by the Chinese policies could have been avoided if big waste companies and cities in the U.S. had listened to the first warning in 2013 (the Chinese Green Fence) to clean up recycling. But no actions were taken for four years, hence the virtually complete ban of importing recyclables from the U.S.
What is the future for U.S. recycling?
Industry has raised fees for processing recyclables, reaching $120 per ton in many locales, which is almost double the cost of processing from a few years ago. In 2020, Washington, D.C., must pay $119 per ton plus a $25 per ton surcharge for glass, which is 20 to 25 percent of the single stream recycle mix in reaction to this landscape. Grass roots recyclers and zero waste campaigners are offering analysis and direction. Louise "Louie" Mann, a former schoolteacher turned recycling activist and founder of Signal Recycling, near Chattanooga, Tenn., now working in Fayetteville, Ark., believes that a return to grassroots control of recycling is paramount.
“We are two generations removed from the citizens who started recycling because of their concern about the world we’d be leaving our kids and grandkids,” says Mann. “Because of our hands-on connection to the recycling process, we provided remanufacturers with clean feedstock. Citizens were highly motivated, knowledgeable and organized. We placed commitment to future generations above convenience. Citizens today are too disconnected from the process.” Mann initiated AR HR 1043, the only state recycling transparency and accountability legislation passed thus far in the United States. (4)
Is there momentum for recycling to go "back to the future?”
Grassroots recycling enterprises have survived in Berkeley, Calif. (The Ecology Center); Boulder, Colo. (EcoCycle); Twin Cities, Minn. (Eureka Recycling); and Ann Arbor, Mich. (The Ecology Center). (5)
These nonprofit, mission-driven organizations operate recycling in their respective cities, some as independent companies, others as joint ventures with local government agencies. They are efficient, cost effective and oversee complementary education and public awareness programs. EcoCycle, for example, has created the Museum of Waste that traces wastefulness in the U.S. It also created CHaRM, or The Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, which has spread to other cities.
Most recently, grassroots recycling got a boost from developments in Ann Arbor, where the City Council directed the rebuilding and reopening of the city's processing facility that was shut down in 2016. The council approved a resolution to pursue Recycle Ann Arbor's (RAA) proposal to reinvest in the city’s shuttered recycling processing facility over a larger company's bid to process recyclables 70 miles away at a planned centralized facility in Lansing, Mich. The city is now in negotiations with RAA, an affiliate of the Ann Arbor Ecology Center, to rebuild and operate the facility for 10 years. RAA's current contract to handle the city's recyclables, set to expire in June, involves transporting recyclables about 250 miles away to a processing facility in Cincinnati. RAA anticipates hiring nearly two dozen full-time union workers with benefits to staff the new area facility.
Santa Fe, N.M., is also re-localizing its recycling system. In 2019, the city’s Solid Waste Management Agency entered into a contract with a regional operator to reopen the municipal materials recovery facility (MRF) that was idled in 2015 to avoid the expense of shipping curbside recyclables 65 miles away to Albuquerque, N.M. Processed materials are sold to end users and brokers directly from Santa Fe. As is the case in Santa Fe, reopening Ann Arbor's MRF also will create local jobs. In 2014, Alachua County, Fla., took over the operation of its processing facility from a private operator in order to maintain a dual stream collection system. The key decision-making points were the importance of a dual stream recycling facility remaining in the region and that, according to the analysis, Alachua County could assume operations without an increased financial burden on the residents.
In Holyoke, Mass., where the city is facing large increases in processing costs, city officials also see the need to bring recycling back into the city. In the short term, the city will continue to ship recyclables out of town for processing. But in the long term, Holyoke could turn the situation into an economic opportunity, processing materials on its own and selling materials to local companies that are currently producing products from recycled materials. “If there is a way we can process materials on our own while growing local businesses, that’s an approach we aim to take,” said Mayor Alex Morse. (6)
Eureka Recycling in St. Paul and Minneapolis
Eureka Recycling can serve these cities as a working model that addresses economic, labor, capital markets and operating procedures for re-localizing recycling in ways that insulate cities from the vagaries of the international and national market.
The nonprofit company designed and capitalized its own processing plant when it saw that big waste companies were monopolizing processing capacity. Its own facility allows its client cities to escape the encirclement of hauling, landfill and recycling processing monopolies. This allowed the company to win the processing contract for Minneapolis as well as the collection and processing contracts in St. Paul.
The company has 35 workers with good wages and benefits. Truck drivers are unionized. Processing of single stream materials takes place in a properly scaled facility that produces clean, raw materials. Eighty percent of these materials are sold to industry in Minnesota, stimulating economic expansion in the state. End markets that wanted long-term supplies of clean materials for their mills helped finance Eureka’s processing facility. The company is mission driven and focuses on routing, proper compaction on hydraulic collection vehicles, careful attention to safety and community participation. The company’s operations and financial reports are transparent to the public.
Most recently, Alex Danovitch, former co-operations manager for Eureka and current board member, was invited by United Workers of Baltimore to provide a presentation to the City Council on Eureka Recycling as a model for Baltimore. Baltimore is facing a major transition in its solid waste and recycling systems due to successful community organizing and a new Clean Air Act that could shut down the city’s downtown incinerator by September. United Workers is preparing a zero waste report based on equity and participation by Baltimore’s community organizations. (7)
A revitalization of grassroots recycling can be the key to reestablishing U.S. recycling on local terms, exactly where post World War II recycling started and succeeded. Localization of recycling collection, processing and marketing, plus locally inspired waste reduction ordinances, is the pathway back to the country’s recycling roots and onward to zero waste within a decade.
Grassroots recycling enterprises are a link to our highly successful past and a bridge to an even better future.
- For information on the history of these early recyclers, see “History of the US Recycling Movement 1945-1995, Encyclopedia of Energy, Technology and the Environment, Wiley Brothers, NY, 1995,” Neil Seldman. Urban Ore and ILSR formed the Recycling Archives Project in 2007 to document the work, motivation and lives of hundreds of citizen-recyclers who responded to the call for rational management of the nation’s discarded materials from the late 1969s through the 1980s. Dan Knapp, Mary Lou Van Deventer, Susan Kinsella and Wynne Coplea curated the stories. See “The Founders Heart: Excerpts from the Recycling Archives, Urban Ore, 2019.
- With the introduction of the single waste stream, more people began to recycle due to the convenience of putting everything in one big container instead of having to sort and dispose of materials separately.
- For more than a decade, Chinese firms bid up the price of recycled paper so that there was little or no investment in U.S. paper recycling mills. This ‘once in a lifetime’ market is now gone. Prices will stabilize but not at the exaggerated levels created by the Chinese between early 2000 and 2017.
- See www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2013/2013R/Pages/BillInformation.aspx?measureno=hr1043.
- See ecologycenter.org/recycling, ecocycle.org, eurekarecycling.org and ecocenter.org, respectively.
- See “Recycling contract has local officials worried about environmental, fiscal impacts,” Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 31, 2019.
- Fair Development Plan for Zero Waste in Baltimore, United Workers, February 2020.
Neil Seldman is the director of the Waste to Wealth Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, based in Washington, D.C. He advises local governments, small businesses and community and environmental organizations on how to recover more materials from the waste stream and add value to the local economy through processing and manufacturing. He is a leading anti-incineration and pro zero waste organizer.