Is it time to recycle recycling?

What happens when something you have done for decades looks like it’s over?

It could be good news or bad news depending on your perspective.

People will debate whether it was just a habit or a conscious practice.

Or maybe it was just a cycle… you know the kind… bull and bear markets, droughts and floods, wins and loses.

Recycling started in Pennsylvania in the late 1980s with a goal of reducing landfill capacity and saving our environment.

It was pretty basic back then with a focus on glass, paper, cans and plastic– the “Big 4” so they were called.

Over time, more and more items were added to the recyclables list.

First, it was other metals, such as aluminum and bimetal cans, stainless steel, copper, brass, lead and even wire.

Then we had to recycle household chemicals and hazardous wastes, batteries, electronics, oil, tires and asphalt.

And we haven’t even gotten to solar panels yet!

Somewhere in there, programs began to allow for commingling, or mixing, products to make it easier for residents to recycle.

Soon, people began to think you could recycle almost anything, and that led to contamination of the waste stream.

When that happens, EVERYTHING winds up back in the landfill.

And, unfortunately, the very thing that was to be fixed was being made worse.

Why am I talking about this?

Under state law, recycling became a mandate on most local governments.

It was socially responsible and, in the short term, would reduce landfill costs, but recycling has become increasingly more expensive over time.

The reduction in state recycling performance grants from the Department of Environmental Protection in the past several years has not made things any easier on local governments.

Now, communities are facing angry residents who want to do the “right thing” and recycle, only to find that international market constraints and contamination make it unaffordable and possibly unsustainable.

What to do?

Education is part of the solution.

Check out these examples of contamination: Did you know (I didn’t) that the grease stains in a pizza box make the cardboard non-recyclable? How about the packing tape that holds boxes together?

Not recyclable either.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the many things that just wind up in the recycling bin, such as disposable diapers because they are plastic or syringes because they are glass.

“Wishful recycling” has become devastatingly costly.

Separating trash from recyclables costs money for the local government, or the haulers, and that eventually means the taxpayers.

While communities are being told it is their responsibility to collect recyclables at all cost due to the state mandate, we must recall the other part of the law that requires the Commonwealth to identify and create markets for recyclables.

Like so many other issues of today, recycling is a joint problem that requires joint solutions.

Maybe local governments should go back to recycling basics, like Lancaster County is doing, by only collecting the “Big 4.”

And maybe as the state makes economic development investment decisions, it should prioritize funding companies that use recyclables as source materials.

Whatever the answer is, we are all in this together and face some tough choices ahead.

We look forward to bringing you some great educational sessions at the 2019 Annual Township Supervisors Conference, including some on recycling.

Of note: DEP’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee and Recycling Fund Advisory Committee will hold a special meeting on Nov. 5 to wrap up discussions by its Act 101 (1988 Recycling law) Workgroup to finalize recommendations on updating the state’s recycling law.

David M. Sanko is executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors. This column appears in the October 2018 issue of PA Township News.