The United States faces a shrinking market for recyclables. Last year, China stopped buying commodities that don’t meet a 99.5% contamination-free standard. Agencies and contractors now need to find alternative markets for U.S. materials as a significant percentage is contaminated, resulting in much of what residents think they are recycling actually ending up in landfills or incinerators.
“For materials that have little contamination, there are definitely markets out there. But it’s effectively because of China’s pushback [that] it has become a buyer’s market in terms of the recyclable commodities,” said Michael Van Brunt, senior director of sustainability at Covanta, which combusts waste to generate energy.
In some Florida counties, recycling rates are already comparatively low — Miami-Dade’s are some of the state’s lowest. The county’s program serves only single-family homes and excludes multi-family complexes. This is why apartment buildings often lack recycling programs, although they are required by law to collect recyclables.
Recycling is also becoming costlier. The market for certain recyclables, such as glass, keeps shrinking. This sometimes leads to glass being sent to landfills after sorting. With changes in the market and technology advancement, some recyclables have lost their value.
Residents’ lack of awareness of complex rules about what goes in the bins has contributed to high levels of contamination of Miami-Dade’s recyclable materials. Approximately 30 percent of recyclables that are picked by the county are contaminated, which means they don’t get recycled.
“Sometimes you have to understand the 80/20 rule. That sometimes 20 percent of the input is 80 percent of the output,” said Shiraz Kashar of Waste Management, Inc. “There might be a small group of people that mistakenly puts garbage in there, and then it kind of ruins the whole load. That happens all the time.”
Miami-Dade currently contracts private companies to haul and sort recyclables. The largest contract, with Waste Management, Inc., is set to expire in 2023 with no concrete plans for renewal. This has prompted questions about whether the recycling program will be modified or perhaps even discontinued.
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