Cities and counties come to grips with the high cost of recycling programs.

blue bin

Local governments have mailed out brochures. They’ve held live web chats. They’ve designed helpful magnets.

But D.C. metropolitan area residents — like recyclers across the country — are still tossing a whole lot of stuff into their recycling bins that shouldn’t be there. And it costs so much to sort that some cities and counties are losing money to recycle.

Now, some local officials are starting to acknowledge that it’s time to be smarter about recycling. That starts with being clearer with consumers about what should and shouldn’t go into the big blue bin.

In the past, “we had been telling people that, if they had any questions, when in doubt, put it into the recycling stream,” said Yon Lambert, the director of transportation and environmental services in Alexandria. “Now, we’re recognizing that making recycling work actually requires some recognition that it’s not as easy as we once communicated it to be.”

Not as easy — and not as lucrative.

Once a profitable business for cities and private employers, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise. The District, Baltimore and many counties in between are contributing millions annually to prop up one of the nation’s busiest facilities in Elkridge, Md. — but it is still losing money. Almost every facility like it in the country is running in the red. Waste Management and other recyclers say that more than 2,000 municipalities are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.

One of the main culprits is a fluctuating global market for plastic and aluminum that local authorities can do little to control. But another is the cost of sorting a multitude of materials that often arrive in a single truck, is highly contaminated driving down the value of the recyclable good because there is too much other stuff mashed up with it.

The realization that more isn’t always best has prompted some debate about whether the big blue bins and “single stream” systems employed throughout the country are really all they’re cracked up to be.

One bin for all materials makes it easier for people to recycle, but it can also make the process more costly.

Several years ago, in the interest of encouraging more recycling, the District followed a pattern set by other cities across the United States and switched from dual stream to single stream.

“You get more recycled product than you do with a dual stream,” said Tommy Wells, director of the D.C. Department of the Environment. “But the downside is that you get waste that can’t be recycled, and it’s more than you bargained for.”

Now it appears less certain that the big blue bin is the easiest option or the way to go.

When recycling bins were filling up because residents were tossing so much in them, the city simply doubled their size. Fines for placing recyclables in the trash also prompted private companies to err on the side of recycling.

The District’s Department of Public Works says it has worked to educate residents on what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable for the city’s recycling bins.

The Public Works Web site lists glass, plastic lawn furniture and dozens of other objects, big and small, as items that should go in the recycling bin. The only things the District officially says cannot go in the recycling bin are plastic foam and pizza boxes.

Recycling over the past year has cost the District more than a million dollars, after making a profit in 2011, in large part because the quality of recycled product has gone down because of contamination.

“If the blue bin becomes nothing but a trash bin, then we’re missing the point and missing an opportunity,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who sits on the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment.

“If our current recycling system isn’t working as well as it should, then we need to explore what changes we’re comfortable asking residents to make, and what changes in collections we can reasonably expect the agency to take on,” he said.

In some of the District’s neighboring counties, officials are feeling similar pressures.

Fairfax County, which netted an average $16 per ton of recyclables in 2011, and paid an average $38 per ton this year, is now weighing the real benefit of a single-stream system.

The cities of Alexandria and Arlington have also started sending out e-mails and brochures about smarter recycling practices.

And in Prince George’s County, where contamination has also sent prices climbing the county has decided that it will no longer accept plastic bags/film of any color, size or shape in its Recycling Program, starting on July 1.

Glass, too, has come under scrutiny. Every county and city recycling program in the region accepts it. And no sound evokes the arrival of the recycling truck quite like the crunching of shattering glass. Yet, officials now agree that it has little value to recyclers. When it breaks, they say, it just tends to end up in landfills.

As technology changes, cities have to look down the road and continue to evolve their policies to determine if it is still worth recycling glass. Glass is very heavy and really contaminates the other recycling material.

One bright spot on the map, might be Montgomery County, which still maintains a “dual-stream” system, and which, still churns out a profit.

The two-stream system makes for less contamination — better sales and less material diverted to landfills, and really isn’t much harder for residents than dealing with a single bin.

Though there are pitfalls in the economics of recycling, there is still value in diverting recyclables from landfills. Most advocates agree that governments do not institute recycling programs to save money, but instead to save energy and maintain the environment.

As John Tiemstra, professor of economics at Calvin College explains, “In economic terms, it’s very often a losing proposition but the thing is, human work does not have the same environmental consequences that exploiting virgin resources has. From a sustainability point of view, recycling has value.”

People have been preaching the importance of the three R’s (Reduce, Re-use, Recycle) for years now – and with good reason. There is truth in saying that recycling reduces pollution and the need for large CO2 producing-landfills, saves limited natural resources such as water, mineral, oil, and coal, and preserves energy by decreasing production numbers.

If we eliminated recycling programs completely 30 percent of solid waste that we recycle would be completely lost. That means that instead of re-using old materials, we have to produce more virgin products from natural resources, a practice that is neither energy- nor cost-effective. For example, recycling an aluminum can saves 95% of the energy required to otherwise produce it from raw materials.

In addition to the environmental rewards, there are also significant social benefits produced through recycling. Aside from bestowing a moral responsibility onto the public, recycling also promotes job growth. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance,

According to the EPA, every 10,000 tons of solid waste hauled into a landfill creates 1 job. Every 10,000 tons of recycled material, however, can result in 10 recycling jobs or 75 material reuse jobs. If the United States could amp up its recycling rate to 75%, it would create nearly 2.3 million jobs across the nation. Therefore, while recycling may not be the most cost-effective program for cities, it helps provide stable, green jobs for the millions of unemployed persons in the U.S.

Thus, cost is not the only factor in cities’ decisions to institute recycling programs. The question will always stand: for whose best interest do we recycle?

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