A Waste Management conveyor processes recyclables. (Wikimedia Commons)

Once a week, Philadelphians set out their trash and recyclables, and the trash-collecting heroes of Philadelphia's Streets Department drive up, take the stuff and make it disappear. But behind the scenes, big changes are afoot – and just because you put stuff in a blue bin doesn't mean it really gets recycled.

As of October, about half of Philadelphia's recyclables have been getting incinerated – a result of skyrocketing costs nationwide caused by stringent new policies on scrap imports in China, formerly the top destination for American recyclables.

"It's not an ideal solution, but the way we see it, it's much better than landfilling it," said Scott McGrath, Environmental Planning Director for the Philadelphia Streets Department. 

Philadelphian's recyclable waste totaled about 784,635 tons in 2015, out of 7.78 million tons statewide. But in the past year, Philadelphia's price per ton for recyclables rose from $4 to $40 a ton, McGrath said. When Streets sought to renew their recycling contract with Republic Services, the new price was a whopping $170 a ton. So they took on a contract with Waste Management (WM) to pay $80 a ton.

 

The market fluctuations stem from China's July 2017 announcement to the World Trade Organization that it no longer would accept "yang laji" – foreign garbage. As of Jan. 1, China has banned imports of 24 categories of recyclable materials and waste; in March, their "contamination threshold" for acceptable scrap imports was increased from 0.5 percent to 3 percent.

"There is no recycling plant in the entire United States that can meet that standard," McGrath explained of the contamination threshold rule. "We went from a very large percentage of paper products and many of the other materials were going to China to now, nothing is going there. ... So the market is having to restructure itself, not only in terms of pricing but also the flow of materials."

WM can only take on half of Philadelphia's recyclables, so the other half are being burned in incinerators operated by Covanta in Chester City and Plymouth Meeting.

Covanta calls its incinerators "waste-to-energy facilities" – but Mike Ewall, founder and director of the local Energy Justice Network, called that term "unscientific horses---."

"I'm pretty appalled by the fact the city is letting half the recyclables be burned," Ewall said. He asserted that any energy collected through incineration pales in comparison to the air pollution, emissions and ash created during the process.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said Covanta's incinerators are in compliance with permitted emissions standards. And Covanta spokesman James Regan said the company does reclaim energy from incineration – roughly 550 kilowatt-hours per ton of trash incinerated – as well as all ferrous and non-ferrous metals in the incinerated loads. The method has also been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while scientists have deemed it a sustainable alternative to placing waste in landfills that is only responsible for a small portion of emissions in the atmosphere.

"There are many municipalities in similar positions as Philadelphia given the lack of markets for these materials," Regan said via email. "The city approached us and asked us to process unsaleable contaminated recyclables on a temporary basis given our energy and metals recovery capabilities as they work through the crisis in the recycling markets. ... We strongly believe that source separated material should be recycled and look forward to seeing reestablished recycling programs in the coming months."

A bigger problem is that without China, there isn't much of a market for recycled materials domestically. A ton of aluminum still nets $1,600, high-density plastics or polyethylenes are worth $600 a ton, regular plastic bottles $300 a ton, and steel cans $50 a ton. But those items represent just seven percent of what is recycled in Philadelphia, McGrath said – with the rest made up of cardboard, which after recycling has a value of $30 a ton, and mixed paper and glass, which have negative value and cost money to recycle.

Furthermore, McGrath said a lot of citizens toss things that can't be recycled into those blue bins – whether that's recyclables full of food waste, unrecyclable items like plastic bags, or more unusual items like bowling balls – all of which also makes the process more costly.

McGrath said Streets is seeking new, long-term contracts so Philadelphia can begin to really recycle again. But some citizens are already organizing to ensure that change happens. Real Recycling Philadelphia (RRP), a recently created coalition, has been campaigning online to drum up support for ensuring that recyclables are reused, not burnt, and so far have already gotten letters of support from Pa. state rep. Stephen Kinsey and state sen. John Sabatina.

"Our position is that the city's never embraced a comprehensive system of recycling, with widespread public education and real metrics. That needs to change," RRP organizer Michael Brady via email. "We understand the market dynamics of recycling have changed, but believe its something that's still important to our city and we should commit to doing it right."