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The Collapse of Recycling and What It Means In Your Blue Bin

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Seeing all the bulging blue-topped bins, you’d think recycling has become so universally internalized that the Pope wouldn’t feel the need to mention it. Yet, mention it he did, four times in his recent global warming encyclical.

But, even Pope Francis might give his position a rethink if he reads a lengthy takedown of recycling in the Washington Post this week.

The Post reports that residential recycling is at an all-time high. But rather than making money for municipalities, taxpayers are having to fork over massively to keep it going.

“Once a profitable business for cities and private employers alike, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise,” reports Aaron Davies. In his region, Washington D.C., Baltimore and many counties in between “are contributing millions annually to prop up one of the nation’s busiest facilities…in Elkridge, Maryland.” Still, that facility is still losing money. Almost every facility similar to this 24-hour a day operation in the country is losing money.

It was supposed to the other way around.

These facilities were supposed to be doing well while doing good, pumping money back into municipal coffers. David Steiner of Waste Management, the massive company that runs the Elkridge facility and 50 others told the Post, “we are talking about a nationwide crisis.” His company lost $16 million last year on its recycling business and is closing down plants.

And it’s not just in the U.S. either. In April the Wall Street Journal reported “two German recyclers have gone bankrupt since December.” A British firm called ECO Plastics, opened only three years ago, was forced to sell its assets to a German company.

Recycling advocates say the problem is complex but is basically three-fold. In the rush to make it easier, residents are no longer asked to sort their recycling, so it’s become more difficult for machines to sorting later. The recycling bins have gotten too big, so people throw just about everything except the kitchen sink in. And glass, which is of limited recycling value, shatters easily, contaminating everything else.

There are also the global issues of a drop in oil prices, a stronger dollar and a decline in the Chinese economy. Each has contributed to the closing of recycling facilities.

Environmentalists are not throwing in the towel. Putting more pressure on the homeowner, they say, could turn around the current crisis. First, they want us to paw through our garbage. No more indiscriminate tossing into the big blue barrels — sort your trash first. And they want us to start composting.

The Post reports that: “the banana peals and grass clippings degrading in landfills that by some estimates have become the nation’s third-biggest source of methane gas contributing to global warming.”

Fingering slimy banana peals may be in your future.

Follow Austin Ruse on Twitter @austinruse


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