Recycling, for decades an almost reflexive effort by American households and businesses to reduce waste and help the environment, is collapsing in many parts of the country.
Philadelphia is now burning about half of its 1.5 million residents’ recycling material in an incinerator that converts waste to energy. In Memphis, the international airport still has recycling bins around the terminals, but every collected can, bottle and newspaper is sent to a landfill. And last month, officials in the central Florida city of Deltona faced the reality that, despite their best efforts to recycle, their curbside program was not working and suspended it.
Those are just three of the hundreds of towns and cities across the country that have canceled recycling programs, limited the types of material they accepted or agreed to huge price increases.
“We are in a crisis moment in the recycling movement right now,” said Fiona Ma, the treasurer of California, where recycling costs have increased in some cities.
Prompting this nationwide reckoning is China, which until January 2018 had been a big buyer of recyclable material collected in the United States. That stopped when Chinese officials determined that too much trash was mixed in with recyclable materials like cardboard and certain plastics. After that, Thailand and India started to accept more imported scrap, but even they are imposing new restrictions.