But now, much of that carefully sorted recycling is ending up in the trash.
For decades, we were sending the bulk of our recycling to China—tons and tons of it, sent over on ships to be made into goods like shoes and bags and new plastic products. But last year, the country restricted imports of certain recyclables, including mixed paper—magazines, office paper, junk mail—and most plastics. Waste-management companies across the country are telling towns, cities, and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling. These municipalities have two choices: pay much higher rates to get rid of recycling, or throw it all away.
Most are choosing the latter. “We are doing our best to be environmentally responsible, but we can’t afford it,” said Judie Milner, the city manager of Franklin, New Hampshire. Since 2010, Franklin has offered curbside recycling and encouraged residents to put paper, metal, and plastics in their green bins. When the program launched, Franklin could break even on recycling by selling for $6 a ton. Now, Milner told me, the transfer station is charging the town $125 a ton to recycle, or $68 per ton to incinerate. One-fifth of Franklin’s residents live below the poverty line, and the city government didn’t want to ask them to pay more to recycle, so all those carefully sorted bottles and cans are being burned. Milner hates knowing that Franklin is releasing toxins into the environment, but there’s not much she can do. “Plastic is just not one of the things we have a market for,” she said.