The past few years have brought sweeping changes to U.S. recycling programs, with the fallout from international policy decisions and a fluctuating market still ongoing.
That reality has fed a narrative that recycling is in peril. Multiple municipalities have limited their curbside programs and some local officials have argued anywhere between hundreds to thousands of communities have opted to ditch recycling. But data shows the situation may be more complicated — and nuanced — than coverage has indicated.
While 60-plus municipalities have canceled their curbside programs (read full list below) some have resumed them following public outcry and new solutions. And while recycling is undoubtedly changing in all 50 states and territories, some industry figures argue the shifts are growing pains that will eventually help the sector in the long term.
In 2017, Waste Dive began tracking the aftermath of China's scrap import policies and their effects on local communities. We contacted every state environmental agency at least twice to gauge impacts (most recently in summer 2019) and closely monitored local news reports on program changes and price increases. Additionally, we noted expanded education efforts, new contract structures and other solutions.
As of publication, we found around 60 municipalities had completely suspended or canceled their curbside programs. That number is well below some of the statistics local officials have cited. When officials in Mississippi's largest city, Jackson, announced a halt to curbside recycling in August, they asserted the city was "one of more than 300 cities" forced to suspend their services.
Local officials in another area went even farther. When Douglas, Wyoming informed residents the city would be suspending recycling services due to economic factors, City Administrator Jonathan Teichert pointed to a staggering statistic.
"It's a nationwide problem. There's been over 3,000 municipalities that have had to suspend — and many of them are larger cities," Teichert said, according to local media reports. He did not clarify if that number included drop-off services along with curbside.
Neither Teichert nor Jackson Public Works Director Robert Miller responded to requests for comment from Waste Dive seeking a source for their numbers. But Waste Dive's findings track with those of The Recycling Partnership, one of the only organizations regularly documenting curbside cancellations. The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) concurred – estimating the total is in the 50 to 60 range – as did the the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.
SWANA and other groups, including the National Waste and Recycling Association, say they have struggled with misinformation about the challenges facing recycling, including inflated cancellation numbers. But alarm over recycling has also generated an outpouring of interest at the federal level, with backing from the industry, that could lead to policy changes in the future.
In the meantime, some communities have already backtracked on their decisions to cancel curbside programs. Deerfield Beach in Florida restarted service with a new processing fee last year, for example, while Oregon's Hood River County resumed recycling in many areas this summer after raising rates and cutting mixed plastics. Other situations are more complex. In Maine, several communities canceled while they await the opening of a Fiberight facility, which allows for commingling of recyclables and waste.
That doesn't mean recycling isn't in flux. Major metropolitan areas such as Phoenix, Arizona are still considering potential service cuts and rate hikes. But the situation is an intricate one that is prompting innovation and forward-looking action plans, even as municipalities face very real struggles concerning cost and feasibility.
Waste Dive will continue to update this list of curbside program cancellation, suspensions and restorations in the months ahead. This does not include drop-off programs or partial cuts.
If you know of any necessary updates to this list, please contact us at [email protected]
|Santa Rosa County||Florida||In progress|
|Plymouth||Massachusetts||Y (Subscription only)|
|Bosque Farms||New Mexico||N|
|Silver City||New Mexico||N|
|Fort Edward||New York||N|
|Craven County||North Carolina||Y|
|China Grove||North Carolina||N|
|Pine Ridge||South Carolina||N|
|Harris County Municipal Utility District 119||Texas||N|