Rethinking Recycling In Philadelphia Suburbs

5:10 minutes

various bins filled with glass bottles, plastic bottles, cardboard, and egg cartons. it's filtered in red and blue
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state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. A version of this story, by Dana Bate, appeared on WHYY, Philadelphia’s public radio station.

When China implemented stricter standards last year for the recyclable material it would accept, requiring it to be no less than 99.5 percent pure, many suburban Philadelphia municipalities cooled their heels to see whether the restrictions would eventually ease.

“That’s happened in the past,” said Frank Chimera, area senior manager of municipal sales for Republic Services, a major recycling processor in the region. “They’ve become restrictive for a few months, and then turned it around and started relaxing the standards again.”

That didn’t happen. If anything, China has signaled it will only become tougher on accepting America’s recyclable trash. And now, recycling programs face this challenge: finding a way to undo habits built up over decades, so that they can find markets for the incoming waste.

“For a long time, more was better, and a lot of programs were set up to drive more recycling,” Chimera said. “We ran that way as a country for probably 20 years.”

That was fine, as long as China was willing to take our waste, from soiled pizza boxes to dirty peanut butter jars. Now that the rules have changed, municipalities have had to adjust, in some cases changing their programs ‚ and, in nearly all cases, re-educating the public about what is recyclable material.

“For a long time, more was better, and a lot of programs were set up to drive more recycling,” Frank Chimera said. “We ran that way as a country for probably 20 years.”

For Delaware County recycling manager Sara Nelson, that has involved creating a brochure for residents on how to recycle properly, outlining what is recyclable and what is not, and how to throw items out properly. (Wash out all jars. Break down all cardboard boxes. No plastic bags).

“People want to do the right thing,” Nelson said. “They just need to know what the right thing is.”

The difficulty, however, is that within Delaware County, individual townships have their own rules. Some take plastics #1 through #7. Others only take certain numbers. That’s the case in other outlying counties, too, including Montgomery and Bucks.

“There’s not a lot of standardization from township to township, city to city, state to state, on what is acceptable and what’s not,” Chimera said. “Some of that depends on the recycling facility that it goes to.”

One town may encourage residents to recycle egg cartons or orange juice cartons, while another a few blocks away may refuse those items.

“There’s all these little differences that make it confusing,” said Veronica Harris, recycling manager for Montgomery County.

She said a statewide standard would cut down on the confusion. So would a system where major packaging producers such as Coca-Cola, Unilever, and General Mills had more skin in the game.

One such model, known as an “extended producer responsibility” model, or EPR, involves a system in which producers take back their packaging. Canada has embraced that model, and Europe and California have been studying it.

“It puts the players at the table,” Harris said.

“Right now, we have no efficiency. We’re all just swimming in our little ponds, trying to figure things out as best we can,” she said. “But with EPR, now you have a system in place that really gets to the root of what’s going on and tries to make it cost-efficient and operationally efficient.”

Major companies are masters at logistics, she said, so they would slide easily into a role where they manage the recycling of their own packaging. But adopting such a program locally is still a long way off, she added.

“If California is studying it but hasn’t done it, Pennsylvania is going to be years behind that,” Harris said.

Some Workarounds

In the meantime, many municipalities are focusing on getting back to basics. For some programs, like the one in Atlantic County, New Jersey, that has meant scaling back.

In December, the county stopped accepting plastics #3 through #7.

“There really is close to no market for that material any longer,” said Rick Dovey, president of the Atlantic County Utilities Authority.

The program also stopped accepting pizza boxes and has encouraged people to remove caps on bottles and jars before tossing them in the recycling, thereby reducing the probability those items might be filled with liquid that would contaminate everything else.

Despite the challenges, Dovey said, his program has never considered sending material straight to the incinerator, as Philadelphia has done for about half its recyclables.

“That’s just the wrong message totally,” he said. “That has not happened here, and it will not happen here.”

Ten years ago, during the recession, he said, commodity prices dropped and the Utilities Authority couldn’t market its material. Rather than burning it, the authority stored all its recycling on site for a full year, covering it with tarps, and sold it once the market began to recover.

That cost money, he said, but it was a better option than burning the material or sending it to a landfill.

“Right now, we have no efficiency. We’re all just swimming in our little ponds, trying to figure things out as best we can,” Veronica Harris said. “But with EPR, now you have a system in place that really gets to the root of what’s going on and tries to make it cost-efficient and operationally efficient.”

Montgomery County’s Harris said Philadelphia’s decision to burn half its recycling probably set back an industry that struggled for decades to gain public trust.

“That’s an anomaly,” she said, referring to Philadelphia’s program. “That’s not the norm of what’s going on out there.”

What also isn’t the norm is the approach J.P. Mascaro and Sons, another local recycling firm, is taking. Rather than going back to basics, as many other companies are encouraging municipalities to do, J.P. Mascaro is upping the ante. It is about to embark on a pilot project with Resource Recycling Systems to test new equipment that will sort and recycle flexible plastic packaging, the bête noire of the industry.

“It is the complete opposite of what’s being preached in the industry,” said Joseph Mascaro, director of recycling and sustainability at J.P. Mascaro.

Flexible plastic—found in everything from food packaging to plastic bags—has been a huge headache for recyclers for years. The plastic gets stuck in sorting machinery, often gumming up the works and grinding the process to a halt, costing time and money and leading to contamination.

Yet plastic packaging is a reality of modern life and not one that is easily replaced.

“We do have to remember that there is a reason for packaging, and it is that it keeps our food fresh, and it keeps our food safe,” Harris said. “If we start backing up on food freshness, now we’re looking at a whole different waste problem, which is food waste.”

But when it comes to solid plastics like numbers 3, 4, 6, and 7, she said, it may be time to find replacements.

“They’re not easily recyclable,” she said. “They’re low-value, low-quality materials that we probably just shouldn’t be using anymore.”

Further Reading

  • Find out more about how Philadelphia is approaching the recent recycling dilemmas from WHYY. 
  • Read about how Philadelphia proper is temporarily incinerating half of its recyclables in The Inquirer.
  • Learn more about what you can recycle in this Science Friday article.

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Segment Guests

Dana Bate

Dana Bate is a health and science reporter at WHYY in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now, it’s time to check in on the State of Science. 

SPEAKER 1: This is KPR. 


SPEAKER 3: St. Louis Public Radio. 

SPEAKER 4: Iowa Public Radio News. 

IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance that will affect all of us. Now, once you put your soda can or your peanut butter jar in the recycling bin– and you do that, don’t you? Where does it go? Well, up until last year, the answer was often China, which once took 40% of US paper, plastic, and other recyclables. 

But after China dramatically clamped down on the quality of the materials it would accept from other countries, local recycling plants in the US have been struggling to find a home for their output. In Philadelphia, half of recyclables currently end up in an incinerator every day. 

That’s not what’s supposed to happen. And in the suburbs, it’s a patchwork of different responses, depending on where you live. Here with more on that story, my guest, Dana Bate, a health and science reporter at WHYY in Philadelphia. Welcome to Science Friday. 

DANA BATE: Thanks so much for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: So 40% of our recyclables used to go to China? What changed there? 

DANA BATE: Well, China changed its policy at the beginning of 2018. It was called the Chinese National Sword. And they basically cracked down and said they wouldn’t take certain types of materials. And the ones that they did take had to be 99.5% pure, which put another way, could not be more than 0.5% contaminated. 

And that means anything from pizza grease on a pizza box to yogurt in the yogurt container, sodas and waters in your plastic bottles. Nothing could be– which for a lot of communities effectively was a ban. Because their recyclables were about 15, 20, 30% contaminated in some cases. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, people were not cleaning out the peanut butter from the jar before they put it in the bin. And so that leaves a problem for our local recycling plants that were relying on the Chinese market, right? 

DANA BATE: Exactly. And they’ve had to look elsewhere. They’ve looked to Vietnam. They’ve looked to other countries in Southeast Asia– Malaysia, Indonesia. Some have looked to Mexico. But none of them were really prepared to take the amount of recycling that China had been taking. 

IRA FLATOW: So The Guardian reported on this story about Philadelphia’s response. Basically, the city sending half of its recyclables to the incinerator right now. But you took a look at suburbs to see what’s happening there. And some of them are adapting. 

DANA BATE: They are. None of them are sending things straight to the incinerator, though after talking to them, some of it does end up there or in a landfill anyway, because of all this contamination we’re talking about. If sodas or water spills on the paper recycling, or there’s too much peanut butter in that peanut butter jar, or things that just aren’t appropriate– a vacuum cleaner or some sort of old toy, that stuff can’t be recycled. 

It contaminates the entire load. And so all of that does end up in a landfill, the incinerator. They were estimating anywhere to 30 to 40% of the entire load in most suburban regions. But a lot of places are adapting. They’re taking different approaches. 

In Atlantic County, New Jersey, I spoke to someone there. They’re only taking plastics number 1 and 2. They’ve stopped taking 3 through 7, because they just can’t find a market for it. And they said, we don’t want it contaminating the load. We want to be able to recycle the things we know we can recycle. So that’s the approach they’ve taken. 

Other places are very much going back to basics. They’re educating their residents, sending out flyers, trying to get people to go on the website, keeping that up to date and really reminding people, here’s what you can recycle. Here’s what you can’t. Here’s how you can make sure that your bin is as clean and uncontaminated as possible. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, how about putting some pressure on the producers to make the materials easier to recycle? 

DANA BATE: Well, that is something. One person I talked to who runs a recycling program in Montgomery County here, outside Philadelphia– she mentioned this. It’s called an Extended Producer Responsibility model. And the idea is that producers would have more skin in the game. You’d have them at the table. 

Maybe they would make products that were easier to recycle, because they would have the responsibility of taking that packaging back. And if they were a part of the process and there was a requirement that they had to take back some of this packaging and be part of the recycling process, it would be maybe, therefore, easier to recycle. 

Canada has done this. A number of their provinces have programs that are this sort of model. Europe is looking at it. Apparently, California is looking at it. It hasn’t really trickled down to a lot of the other states. But it could be something in the future that really makes a lot of sense. 

IRA FLATOW: We’ll have to watch it. Dana, thank you. Great story. 

DANA BATE: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: Dana Bate, the health and science reporter for WHYY in Philadelphia. We’re going to take a break. And later, coming back soon. President Trump is assembling a panel of advisors on climate change whose qualifications for the job may be that they’re skeptical climate change is even happening. The last stand of the climate change deniers coming up after the break. Stay with us.

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