Recycling moves through the Sims Municipal Recycling Facility, an 11-acre recycling center on the Brooklyn waterfront in New York City.

Recycling moves through the Sims Municipal Recycling Facility, an 11-acre recycling center on the Brooklyn waterfront in New York City.

More Americans than ever have access to curbside recycling programs. But recycling in the United States has hit hard times. After years of steady growth, recycling rates have stalled at a little more than 34 percent, meaning only about a third of our total waste avoids the landfill. Meanwhile, low global commodity prices are putting a financial squeeze on recycling companies. And changes to what we put into our bins is making it more difficult to separate paper, glass, aluminum and plastic. Companies are passing costs along to cities and counties who are now shelling out cash for a service that once brought in revenue. We look at what this means for cities, counties and the future of recycling programs in the United States.


  • Susan Collins President, Container Recycling Institute
  • Aaron Davis Reporter, Washington Post
  • Sharon Kneiss President and CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Association
  • Tim Croll Solid waste director, Seattle Public Utilities


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Twenty years ago, curbside recycling programs existed in only a few communities. Now, they're available to about 70 percent of Americans. During that time, recycling rates have shot up as have the number of companies who collect, sort and bring recycled materials to market. But recently, these companies have fallen on hard times.

  • 11:07:24

    MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about what this means for recycling in the U.S., Aaron Davis of The Washington Post and Sharon Kneiss of the National Waste and Recycling Association. Joining us from an NPR studio in Los Angeles, Susan Collins of The Container Recycling Institute. You're invited, as always, to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.

  • 11:08:05

    MS. SHARON KNEISSPleasure to be here.

  • 11:08:07

    MR. AARON DAVISI'm happy to be here.

  • 11:08:07

    MS. SUSAN COLLINSGood morning.

  • 11:08:08

    REHMAnd Susan Collins, I'll start with you. The Recycling Institute is focused on, I gather, research, education and recycling advocacy. How would you say we're doing in this country? What's our recycling rate right now?

  • 11:08:31

    COLLINSWell, the official nationwide recycling rate is 34 percent. And I want to put that in context a little bit. We're speaking today, primarily, about residential curbside recycling, which is part of the story, but it's not the whole story when it comes to recycling in the U.S. About half of the materials in the U.S. are generated through the commercial, institutional and industrial sector so there's recycling going on there as well.

  • 11:08:59

    COLLINSHow we're doing compared to the rest of the world? We're sort of in the middle of the pack. There are industrialized countries that are doing much better than the U.S., especially in the European Union where they have more comprehensive laws about what can be done with waste and especially about recycling.

  • 11:09:20

    REHMAnd I gather how much recycling goes on differs widely from state to state.

  • 11:09:32

    COLLINSThat is so true. It's strange even to talk about the U.S. recycling rate when it's really driven by some states that are doing very, very well, have recycling rates above 50 percent, that really dominate that overall 34 percent recycling rate. And then, we have other states that are well under 10 percent. So we really don't have a U.S. sort of homogenous recycling rate. It's really some very, very strong states in recycling and then sort of the middle of the country that is mostly not doing as well.

  • 11:10:11

    REHMSo California and Oregon are two of those states doing particularly well. Tell me why that is.

  • 11:10:22

    COLLINSSure. Well, to put that into perspective, too, California's recycling rate is so strong and it's such a big state that 25 percent of all materials recycled in the United States are recycled in California. California and Oregon started over 25 years ago with very comprehensive laws that told every community in the state that they had to recycle and reduce their baseline by 50 percent.

  • 11:10:53

    COLLINSSo those states are sort of head and shoulders above many of the other states in the U.S., but there's some other good success stories in recycling, too, like Minnesota and Massachusetts, et cetera.

  • 11:11:08

    REHMAll right. And turning to you, Aaron Davis of The Washington Post, you recently wrote a story saying that recycling has hit a plateau. What's going on?

  • 11:11:24

    DAVISWell, yes. I was covering this story because I write about D.C. government and government spending in D.C. and I noticed that D.C. was spending more than it ever had on recycling. What was once a money maker for the city had become a cost of over a million dollars a year. And when I dug into this, I found that what was happening in D.C. was the same what was happening in most municipalities across the country. Obviously, California and some others excluded.

  • 11:11:52

    DAVISBut that the economics of recycling are at a low point. At best, they're at a low point nationwide right now and there's some reasons we can talk about for that. But it's kind of a long trend, at least in D.C.'s case, for three years, it's been in the red and paying more and more and more to recycle its material. And the industry says, these are the biggest recyclers in the country, say that it's even worse than that, that they are also running in the red, that they're posting losses, that they're not investing anything.

  • 11:12:22


  • 11:12:23

    DAVISThat, in fact, Waste Management, the largest recycler, says it's closed nearly 10 percent of its biggest recycling facilities in the country in the last year and will close more in the coming year.

  • 11:12:31

    REHMAnd I gather one reason is low oil prices?

  • 11:12:36

    DAVISRight. Yeah, if you look at the kind of macroeconomic picture here, it's the commodity prices are falling. You know, believe it or not, our garbage is treated much like a ton of steel or a ton of sugar, obviously for a lot less money than that, but the cardboard that's all bundled together, the plastic that's all smushed together, those are sent to China, to different plants in the U.S. for different things.

  • 11:12:57

    DAVISAnd with the low price of oil, it is cheaper for some manufacturers to build new plastic bottles than to recycle them and make new ones that way. It's cheaper for -- in China to use other products than to use our recycled paper right now. The recycled container board, they call it in China, used to trade a couple years ago at about $1,000 a metric ton. It's now about $400 a metric ton.

  • 11:13:22

    REHMSo Sharon Kneiss, as president of the National Waste and Recycling Association, this connection between the price of commodities and recycling is all just totally connected as one piece.

  • 11:13:43

    KNEISSRecycling is a commodity business and while there's two aspects to recycling, the collection and processing, it is very important to understand that it is a market and you've got to meet marketplace needs. And right now, as Aaron indicated, commodity prices are challenged. The interesting thing about commodities for recyclables is it's much more a spiky price change than you will see in other commodities and right now, it's quite low.

  • 11:14:14

    REHMSo Susan, how come commodity prices are so low right now?

  • 11:14:23

    COLLINSWell, there's several reasons that has already been mentioned, the falling commodity prices, the competition with the price of oil that specifically affects PET plastic, which is the type of plastic that's used to make water bottles and soda bottles, for example. But there are some other factors, some of them international, going on as well, one of them being foreign currency fluctuation, the strength of the U.S. dollar means that our materials are more expensive abroad.

  • 11:14:56

    COLLINSAnd a large percentage, around 50 percent, of our paper commodities get exported to other countries, primarily China. It's also a high percentage of our plastics that get exported as well. So they're competing with, you know, prices overseas that are lower. And then, another factor that's interesting and has happened very recently and will, you know, eventually take care of itself is the recent West Coast port strike.

  • 11:15:30

    COLLINSWith so many of our commodities going through those ports to China, the strike meant that everything was stopped for awhile and now, there's a backlog of materials. So that's a large factor, but it is something that will take care of itself over time as that backlog is drawn down.

  • 11:15:47

    REHMOkay. And that makes me wonder whether what we're seeing now in terms of lower rates of recycling is just a blip in your mind. Do you think we will get back, Susan, to our normal rates of recycling?

  • 11:16:11

    COLLINSThere are ongoing challenges so some of those are sudden and recent, but there are others that are long term changes that have been going on for five years that will continue into the future. There's an issue with the changing waste stream. There used to be far more newspaper in the curbside recycling mix, and that, over a five year period, is down 23 percent. Overall, paper is down 20 percent in the curbside mix.

  • 11:16:38

    COLLINSPlastics are up 15 percent and we're getting into these flexible packaging, is what it's called. It's all the pouches and things that frozen food come in that's, at this point, not recyclable so that's an issue that the material recovery facilities, the recycling facilities have to deal with because people still put those things in their curbside bin thinking that it is recyclable.

  • 11:17:05

    REHMGo ahead, Sharon.

  • 11:17:07

    COLLINSOh, there's more. Then, there's light-weighting, which is a terrific thing. It reduces transportation costs when packaging is light-weighted. But then, that leads to higher volume of material with low weight that has to be collected and processed, which leads to higher sorting costs at the recycling facilities.

  • 11:17:31

    REHMI see. And Sharon, you wanted to jump in.

  • 11:17:34

    KNEISSAnd I was going to say exactly what Susan said, there is light-weighting, which introduces a very interesting dynamic for the industry because while processing costs are based on volume, the cost to sell the commodity is based on weight, so that introduces in additional challenge for the industry.

  • 11:17:56

    REHMSharon Kneiss is president and CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Association. Short break here. We'll be right back.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMAnd we're talking about recycling and how it's changed over perhaps the last 10 years or so: larger bins, people putting so much into one bin. Aaron, I gather you went to visit a D.C. recycling center.

  • 11:20:23

    DAVISI did. I went to one of the largest, one of the busiest facilities in the country, where everything from D.C. and most of the stuff from Baltimore and the surrounding counties all goes. And it's along Interstate 95, just south of Baltimore. And it was interesting to see because you get a real sense of where the chokepoint is right now in the whole system. And it's very early after it leaves your house, your curbside, it ends up at this first place, this thing called a MRF, a material recoveries facility. And everything comes off the truck and it looks and smells a lot like a garbage dump. And it's coming off because people are throwing more and more things in their blue bins that they didn't used to. We can get to that in a minute.

  • 11:21:00

    REHMLike what?

  • 11:21:01

    DAVISWell, you've used -- say you get a package in the mail from eBay or Amazon. You take, sometimes, anymore the bin's so big, you don't have to breakdown the box. You throw the whole box, the plastic...

  • 11:21:10

    REHMThe cardboard and the plastic and all that.

  • 11:21:11

    DAVIS...all that kind of stuff. Right. And then -- but even more than that, people, if they -- doesn't fit in their garbage bin, sometimes they'll just throw it in the recycling bin. And that includes, well, a rubber hose is plastic. Maybe somebody can recycle that. So they throw that in there. Christmas light have some plastic. Maybe those can be recycled too. I leave it up to somebody else to decide. And all of those things get thrown in and then they gum up the machines later on. And so when you go to this facility, it all comes on this big conveyor belt, streaming along at 10, 20, 30 tons an hour. And there's people pulling things off, if there's a big, you know, block of concrete or a barbell I've even seen taken off this...

  • 11:21:47

    REHMWow. So you've got people along this...

  • 11:21:52

    DAVISBig conveyor belt, coming in right off the truck.

  • 11:21:53

    REHM...big conveyor belt. Wow.

  • 11:21:54

    DAVISIt's dumped on. And then the first piece of machinery it encounters is these big wheels that kind of blow the cardboard and everything light up in the air towards a chute where all the paper stuff goes. And all the heavier things, the plastic, the tin cans, those are supposed to fall and go to a series of belts and magnets and all kinds of erector-set-type looking things that sort them into different bins.

  • 11:22:16

    REHMOkay. But wait a minute. What is supposed to go into those recycle bins? Sharon.

  • 11:22:24

    KNEISSWell, on the single stream, which is the type of facility that Aaron was at, it should be paper, cardboard, various types of plastics, cans, and that's about...

  • 11:22:41


  • 11:22:42

    KNEISSAnd the challenge is that there's a lot of aspirational recycling, that people feel it should be recycled. And they put it in there and think, well, we'll figure it out.

  • 11:22:52

    REHMOkay. So somebody throws, say, a rubber hose in there. What happens to the rubber hose?

  • 11:22:59

    DAVISWell, if nobody grabs it off the conveyor belt, it'll get strung around one of those machines. And I've seen them tied up and...

  • 11:23:04

    KNEISSShut it down.

  • 11:23:04

    DAVIS...and shut it down. What that had -- the most frequent thing I saw was the plastic shopping bags, your newspaper bags, those little plastic flimsy things. Those get blown up in the air and blown around those wheels. And every two hours at this facility, they have to take one of the two lines off -- offline...

  • 11:23:19

    REHMThey have to shut it down.

  • 11:23:20

    DAVIS...shut it down completely and pull about a thousand of these plastic bags out of the machine that are get -- all wrapped up.

  • 11:23:25

    REHMSo it sounds as though we're in desperate need of new and better education about recycling. Susan, you're shaking your head.

  • 11:23:38

    COLLINSAbsolutely. We have relied for years on so much wanting to encourage people to recycle that we have told them in this country, go ahead and throw it in the bin. We'll figure it out at the material recovery facility. And we've also just been trying to inspire them to recycle. And the education now needs to shift to very specific instructions with the authority of a stop sign. This is what you do. This is how you do it. Don't deviate from that path. Because what's happening right now is the incoming material has 16 percent contamination at these material recovery facilities. That means one out of every six items isn't supposed to be there.

  • 11:24:24

    REHMAnd the...

  • 11:24:24

    COLLINSAnd you can't expect any facility to function well in that kind of an environment.

  • 11:24:29

    REHMAnd that would also mean, Sharon, I think that it would take more money, more effort, more human beings to sort out what's being thrown into those big bins.

  • 11:24:42

    KNEISSYes. That contamination significantly increases the cost of recycling. And one of my member companies indicated that for every ton of contamination that they have to recover from that facility that's not recyclable, it costs somewhere about $140 a ton. Keep in mind that some of the commodity prices for a ton of material that they're selling to the market, they get less than $150. So...

  • 11:25:13

    REHMTell me how badly the recycling companies are hurting.

  • 11:25:20

    KNEISSWell, first of all, I want to say recycling is a -- has grown tremendously in the past 20 years. And the citizens of this country seem to have embraced it. It's a good thing. It's environmentally very sustainable. We just need to make sure that it's economically sustainable. And we have to work on that. Education is a key. We need to avoid contamination of the recycling stream. And that's why we're worked with Keep America Beautiful to develop a list, an infographic that shows the 10 things you know can go into your cart or your bin. And so we need to be doing more of that.

  • 11:26:04

    REHMAnd one of the things you pointed out in your article, Aaron, is that one problem may be the bigger bins.

  • 11:26:13


  • 11:26:13

    REHMWhy were they introduced in the first place? And why have they become the culprit?

  • 11:26:21

    DAVISWell, I think, as Susan said, you know, this kind of trend began in California with people saying, "How do we encourage people to do this?" I remember as a kid where you had, you know, a five-gallon bucket at the end of the driveway and you had to get your plastic in one and your tin in the other. And nothing seemed to fit in any of the buckets. And, you know, you'd have to deal with all that. Then, say, they said, "Well, a better way and an easier way and everybody might just do this more if we have a big blue bin." And in D.C., that was happening so well that, in fact, they increased the size of these blue bins by 50 percent last summer and last spring. And they were so big, I think it encouraged people to just keep throwing more and more stuff inside.

  • 11:26:55

    DAVISTo this issue of the contamination of the debris -- all the things that the industry finds so troubling -- is that the amount of debris doubled in D.C. when they made the bins bigger. It didn't mean more recycling stuff was being put in the bins, it meant other things were putting in the bins. And that -- if you're looking at this from a purely economic standpoint, if you're not an environmentalist, if you just care about how your city's doing or if this is a good idea or not -- that meant that when they calculated the last time for D.C. in the fall, how much debris versus how much recyclable stuff was in the couple trucks they did test case, it meant that the price D.C. had to pay jumped, in fact, almost doubled.

  • 11:27:37

    DAVISAnd so D.C. now pays 25 percent more to dispose of its recyclables by sending this to a facility than it does simply sending its trash to an incinerator in Virginia. And that's kind of been the kind of breakeven point everybody's been looking at for a long time in this industry of -- does this cost as much to -- can we make it as economically feasible so that it doesn't cost us any more to throw away our trash than to sell the stuff.

  • 11:27:59

    REHMWow. Wow. But, on the other hand, I mean, that was supposed to be the whole point of recycling in the first place, was to save us money as well as to save the environment. Susan, wasn't that at the heart of it?

  • 11:28:23

    COLLINSYou know, recycling has always cost money. Unless you're talking about the scrap yards that have been operating for decades that are processing metals that have a very high value, recycling has always cost money. It costs money to purchase those collection trucks. It costs money to have the labor and the insurance and the fuel. And the revenue from commodity sales only covers a third to half of the total costs of recycling. But that doesn't mean it's not something that we should pursue as a national strategy.

  • 11:28:54

    COLLINSRecycling is so important as a national strategy because it helps us save -- it helps us reduce greenhouse gasses, save energy costs and provide those valuable commodities to the markets in this country that are competing with other companies around the world. And I'm talking about the paper mills, the aluminum processors, the plastics companies, the glass companies -- they all need those valuable commodities. And when they have those valuable commodities, it produces high quality manufacturing jobs in this country. So we need to continue to do that for some very important reasons. But we've had this quality crisis that we wrote a report about all the way back in 2009.

  • 11:29:39

    COLLINSThe contamination from the facilities and the quest to push as much material through these facilities and collect as much material as possible, we've lost the vision of producing a high quality product to go back into the manufacturing sector.

  • 11:29:56

    REHMSo, Sharon, how does this contamination, if you will, affect the revenues that cities and companies get? If they break even, you say, then it's fine. But in the beginning, you had companies making a profit, cities making a profit.

  • 11:30:23

    KNEISSThat's correct. And there is a challenge. It does impact the cost. It increases the cost with the contamination. And so we need to find a way to educate those who are participating in recycling, so they understand what goes in there and what should stay out. And a lot of the larger companies and those who have recycling facilities are working with their communities to make sure that education gets communicated and people understand what goes in the bin...

  • 11:30:57


  • 11:30:57

    KNEISS...and the impact of putting the wrong things in that bin.

  • 11:31:01

    REHMAll right. I'm going to open the phones now. 800-433-8850. On our Tweet deck, one person asks, "Is there a website that tells us exactly what can and should be recycled?" Sharon.

  • 11:31:26

    KNEISSWe have a website that's called, And if you go to that, it'll give you some information on what are the 10 things you know can go into a single-stream recycling bin at the curbside.

  • 11:31:42

    REHMAnd if they're not -- if something you've got is not on that list, should you assume you should not put it into that bin?

  • 11:31:53

    KNEISSWhen in doubt, leave it out.

  • 11:31:56

    REHMThat's a good slogan. All right. We'll have that website repeated again.

  • 11:32:03


  • 11:32:05 All right. Let's open the phone, go to Louisville, Ky. Chris, you're on the air.

  • 11:32:16

    CHRISYes, I wonder how many people realize that Japan could never have gone to war without the scrap metal that we sold them back before World War II. They built their war machinery with our scrap metal.

  • 11:32:32

    REHMDo we know that? We don't know that. All right. Well, Chris, in Louisville says that that's how it happened. I don't know that. Let's take a caller here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air, Irene.

  • 11:32:54

    IRENEYes, hello.

  • 11:32:55


  • 11:32:56

    IRENEHi. I have a question about the burden on the individual, with the increasing complexity of the problem and what goes in, what doesn't go in. This Christmas, my family was together in my small apartment. And I had bags all over for everybody to be putting in things. And I came out of the kitchen and I said, "We're not recycling here anymore. This is the end." You get the news that the -- two years ago, the scientists came out and said that the -- we had hit the point of no return on the environment. The recycling business is going downhill. What is the -- what is California doing that it's hitting 50 percent and the burden on the individual in an increasingly urban society with small apartments to recycle?

  • 11:33:47

    REHMAll right. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What is California doing?

  • 11:33:55

    DAVISWell, I believe Susan can probably speak to this as well. But you've got, in California -- specifically in San Francisco and also in Portland and some places -- really robust composting that adds to the recycling effort there and allows you to take the food scraps, the yard scraps. And that also has the added benefit of taking away some of the very components that cause methane gas when they're breaking down in landfills. So that's how they're getting higher as well. I think that, you know, if you go back to the -- this -- the -- on D.C.'s side of this, you know, they are -- well, I'll let Susan speak to this first and then I'll come back to that.

  • 11:34:34

    REHMAll right. Go ahead, Susan.

  • 11:34:37

    COLLINSSo the California approach -- California passed a groundbreaking law back in 1989 that required every single city to establish a baseline of what their waste generation was and to reduce that by 50 percent over a period of 10 years. And it was a no-stone-unturned approach. It involves residential waste, commercial waste, industrial waste, schools, institutions, everything -- every single thing that could possibly go into a landfill has to be addressed, has to be examined and we have to figure out a way to process it. And because of that, the diversion rate in California is as high as 60 percent now.

  • 11:35:17

    COLLINSAnd there are programs that are absolutely ubiquitous in every municipality because the municipalities were forced with either implementing these plans or facing fines of up to $10,000 a day in the state.

  • 11:35:27


  • 11:35:28

    COLLINSSo it was a very serious program.

  • 11:35:30

    REHMSo the question is, is fining the way to go, Sharon?

  • 11:35:38

    KNEISSKeep in mind that with curbside collection -- looking at paper, newspaper, and containers, packaging -- that when you look at the entire stream, that's only 40 percent of the entire waste stream. So even if you got 100 percent of all of that product, you still haven't reached that 50 percent mark. And so you need to look beyond that. And, of course, that's where you get into food waste and...

  • 11:36:11

    DAVISRight. There's also...

  • 11:36:11

    KNEISS...and yard waste and things like that. I don't know that fining is the answer. I think education is very important.

  • 11:36:20

    DAVISI was going to add to that. I think that we've also privatized a lot of this whole industry. And so you've left it on the companies now to collect. And the contracts that they've set up with different municipalities, does that then make them the ones who decide how much they're going to put into research and development to make this better, to be able to get more stuff out of the stream. And so right now, if they're running in the red, it's hard to see how, like, a company like Waste Management -- who says a couple years ago they were putting $100 million a year into new technology and now says they're putting basically zero -- that how you encourage them to invest more to recycle, you know, to make these streams more effective.

  • 11:36:56

    DAVISAnd with them downsizing, I think the question is, how do you encourage the companies to do a better job? And how do you restructure some of these contracts between the cities and between the private industry that's doing the actual collection to get us out of this rut?

  • 11:37:12

    KNEISSAnd I think Aaron put his finger on it, and that is how you share the risk of the cost of recycling and working with the municipalities to risk-share, in terms of cost.

  • 11:37:25

    REHMAll right. And we'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk with Tim Croll, who's director of solid waste for the City of Seattle. We'll be taking more of your calls. Stay with us.

  • 11:40:00

    REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about recycling efforts throughout the country, some companies deciding that recycling is no longer making a profit. Here we have an email from the other side of the equation from Christopher in Brooklyn, New York. He says, what kinds of programs, if any, are being used to reduce the use of certain products, like plastic, for example plastic bag bans, plastic bottle bans, phone container bans and better packaging? What do you see happening, Aaron?

  • 11:40:49

    DAVISWell, there are a number of large cities that have made -- instead of banning plastic bags, they've increased a fee, you get a five cent charge every time you get a bag and try to discourage the use of, you know, material that can't be recycled that way. It's had some limited success. It's hard to really get an understanding of what that's done. I think if you're a consumer, one thing you can do is instead of taking your plastic shopping bags and throwing them in the recycling bin, you can take them back to the shopping store, where they have bins that are specifically designed for that.

  • 11:41:21

    REHMAll right, and joining us now is Tim Croll. He's director of solid waste for the city of Seattle. Tim, thanks for joining us.

  • 11:41:32

    MR. TIM CROLLThank you for having me, and greetings from the other Washington, where recycling is alive and well.

  • 11:41:36

    REHMIndeed, well, I know you've been listening to the conversation. How about these challenging economic conditions? Have they affected you?

  • 11:41:50

    CROLLYou know, only in a moderate way. I would say that the challenges the industry faces today are no different than they were 25 years ago. You know, you have to educate your customers to reduce contamination, even as you try to increase what can be recycled every step of the way. You have to say this goes in the bin, this does not. The -- our view of the market value of the materials is sort of like the frosting on the cake. You know, sometimes the frosting's thicker, sometimes lately it's getting a little thinner, but the cake is always what you're avoiding, paying for landfilling material, and that's always a lot more the benefit for municipality.

  • 11:42:30

    REHMOf course. Now I understand that Seattle has one of the highest recycling rates in the country. Tell us how your program has become so successful.

  • 11:42:45

    CROLLA couple things. We do do market risk-sharing with our processing company. So in case markets go down, we pay a little bit more, but we're still making out, and we're still in the black because it's still a lot cheaper than land-filling. That's one item. The second item is we put a lot of emphasis on yard waste and food waste. I would say a jurisdiction that's serious about recycling overall, if they haven't -- don't have a yard waste and a food waste collection program, they're really kidding themselves.

  • 11:43:19

    REHMSo how many bins do you have?

  • 11:43:19

    CROLLWe have three bins, similar to San Francisco. What we call the organics, the kitchen scraps and the yard waste, go in the green bin. The paper and bottles and cans go in the blue recycling bin. And what's left over for garbage, which is not much, goes in the black garbage bin.

  • 11:43:39

    REHMSo what you're asking consumers to do is do the initial separation for Seattle.

  • 11:43:51

    CROLLThat's right, and pretty much any curbside program does that. So we're just saying put it in this bin instead of the garbage bin.

  • 11:43:58

    REHMAnd what kinds of incentives are you using, as well as penalties, to get people to do that?

  • 11:44:07

    CROLLYes, we -- our garbage system is set up so that the bigger your garbage can, the more you pay. So there's every economic incentive for people to divert to recycling and to composting and then have a smaller garbage can, a smaller garbage bill. For 10 years, we've had a requirement that recyclables cannot go in the garbage. That's been very successful for us. And this year we introduced a similar requirement, saying that food scraps must go in the composting, cannot go in the garbage.

  • 11:44:36

    REHMOkay, but, you know, I live in a condo. I don't have a compost heap. So how do you deal with that?

  • 11:44:48

    CROLLYou have to look at the whole system. So a number of years ago, we had established a requirement where landlords and condo associations had to provide composting service for their tenants and residents that wanted to use it. At that time, it wasn't mandatory for people to use it, but the landlord had to provide the bin. And so now it is mandatory, and people have a little collection bin in their kitchen, and when they walk down to the parking lot a couple times a week, they take that and drop it in the food waste container.

  • 11:45:19

    REHMI see, I see, and are there fines for people who are not cooperating?

  • 11:45:28

    CROLLWe have -- back with our recycling requirement, we did spot checks on dumpsters, and, you know, it wasn't one piece of paper, it had to be a significant amount. If that -- we -- if we found that, there were two warnings, and after two warnings, we would give a $50 fine to the dumpster account holder. And we've had, you know, maybe a couple hundred of those over the years, not very many. So people are kind of getting the idea. It's not about, you know, sticking it to them or getting a fine, it's just a little reminder that this is where it should go now.

  • 11:46:05

    REHMAnd how much contamination do you have? How do you make sure that people are putting things in the right bins?

  • 11:46:14

    CROLLWell, we -- our contamination runs between five and 10 percent, so quite a bit less than what it sounds like Washington, D.C., does. Our collectors, who are company employees, when they flip the lid to dump, they see stuff that doesn't belong in the recycling, then they will leave it with a note, saying please remove the garbage or whatever might be contaminated in that, same thing for composting. If there's things like metal or other things that shouldn't be in the composting, they will leave that bin and ask people to take out the stuff. So that's, you know, that's a big incentive. It's not a fine, but it's certainly an inconvenience if they're not getting their stuff picked up.

  • 11:46:57

    REHMAnd finally, what do you think could be the most important change that we as a country could make to give people the incentive to recycle and to make it at least profitable for counties and cities?

  • 11:47:20

    CROLLWell, I would say that if -- jurisdictions are going to be in the best shape if they have a solid waste billing system that charges more for a bigger amount of garbage. Now some jurisdictions have a flat fee for the garbage. Other jurisdictions, cities, municipalities, they have -- it's in the property tax. So there's really no financial incentive to recycle for that case. So, you know, switching that over to a garbage bill that varies by how much -- how big your garbage can is probably one of the big steps that could be done.

  • 11:47:56

    REHMAnd finally, here's an email from Jason. What are the top five items that people think are recyclable but are not?

  • 11:48:12

    CROLLWell, we recycle quite a bit out here. We take plastic bags, but they have to be bagged up, you know, put many bags in one plastic bag. But the single plastic bags are a good example of a contaminant. Any type of packaging where paper and plastic are mixed together, that would be a contaminant. And anything, you know, people try to recycle sometimes toys or whatever, where the plastic and the metal and other materials are sort of all combined and not desegregated, and that I think would be a good example of a contaminant.

  • 11:48:53

    REHMSo what do you do with those? What do you do with a leftover toy, Sharon?

  • 11:48:59

    KNEISSWell, if they end up at the recycling facility, they have to be gathered, and then they're disposed of.

  • 11:49:06

    REHMDisposed of how? Landfills.

  • 11:49:12

    KNEISSWhich, you know, serves a very important role. And if it has an organic base, it will help generate methane, which the landfill uses to generate electricity. But yeah, if it's a contaminant, it will -- it has to be pulled off the line and disposed of.

  • 11:49:34

    REHMSusan, do you want to comment?

  • 11:49:38

    COLLINSI do because I think we've been doing a great job about talking about the challenges for curbside recycling in this show, but we need also to talk about what are better approaches that are being used elsewhere and really going upstream for the solutions rather than just accepting the doom and gloom that we've been discussing right here. There are better ways to do this.

  • 11:50:03

    COLLINSSingle-stream recycling is far more challenging than dual-stream recycling, and curbside-sorted material is that much cleaner and container deposit material is that much cleaner. When you put a deposit on beverage containers, and they come back clean and sorted by material type, those commodity prices are 40 percent higher, sometimes double, and they're not suffering the same type of fluctuation that the curbside materials are.

  • 11:50:33

    COLLINSWe also have materials that are designed for the dump, and that's a brand owner design decision that's happening that's not helpful. So there's both better collection practices and better upstream policies and better upstream designs that are really the long-term solution to all of this, as opposed to short-term fixes or just sort of living with a bad situation and thinking that's the best we can do.

  • 11:51:02

    REHMAll right, I want to go back to the phones, to Gaithersburg, Maryland. Taya (PH), you're on the air.

  • 11:51:10

    TAYAHi Diane, and hello to all of your guests. I love your show.

  • 11:51:15

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:51:17

    TAYAAnd always great topics, this time specifically for me because I'm an environmental scientist, and I studied ecology in Sweden. So I just wanted to chime in a little bit when you were talking about different policies and procedures in Europe. I've lived here for about two years in Maryland, and I've noticed that, I mean, our recycling bin is one bin for everything. And in Sweden we had 16 different bins, and I'm talking about clear glass, green glass, brown glass, you know, normal paper, newspaper, carton. It was all separated by the consumer.

  • 11:51:59

    TAYAAnd we've also visited a huge recycling facility that was, like, one of the cleanest places that I've ever seen in my life, if you can believe it, and you probably all know than in the last two years, Sweden basically ran out of recycling materials, and they wanted to get it from other countries. So that's how far they've gotten with their reproduction or recycling of the materials that we throw away because we produce natural gas, as well, for cars. There's a gas station right above the recycling facility where you can gas up your car for -- with a total tax deduction. So the government completely takes away any tax for gas, which in Sweden, where it's about 350 percent more expensive for here, means a lot.

  • 11:52:52

    REHMHow interesting. Tim Croll, do you want to comment?

  • 11:52:56

    CROLLSure, I would say that the callers you've had this morning sure are the whole spectrum. The caller, just the caller with the experience in Sweden, shows they're willing to do 16 different sorts. That's extremely helpful. And then you had an earlier caller that seemed to be saying that, you know, the right to all, everything in the garbage can was a constitutional right, up there with the right to bear arms.

  • 11:53:18

    CROLLSo, you know, we feel that we have to meet people in the middle, meet them where they are. For us, it works better if we ask them, you know, to focus on sorting the organics and getting that right, and if we can make life easier for them a little bit by saying all the recycling goes in one bin that we think that's a good tradeoff.

  • 11:53:38

    REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And now to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hi there, Gary, you're on the air.

  • 11:53:46

    GARYHi, and thanks. Isn't the problem really that we've taken somewhat of a small part of the problem, which is recycling alone, as opposed to the larger problem of waste processing and disposal? And then we subject it to a free-market approach, rather than taking the bigger problem and acting as a government can and should in this matter. So they should probably be charging more for general land -- waste disposal and maybe even taxing manufacturers for producing and putting into the market non-recyclable products.

  • 11:54:29


  • 11:54:30

    DAVISYou know, I do think you're right, you've got consumers on the front end who -- many across the country want to recycle and want to feel like this is going in the right direction. And at the back end of the system, you do have plastic manufacturers and cardboard manufacturers who are making a profit off of this material. So how do you fix this part in the middle, of getting the right stuff sorted, getting it through this initial sort so that it gets where it can go to be remanufactured? And that's the question cities have to answer.

  • 11:54:53

    DAVISAnd, you know, as one environmentalist I spoke to said, nobody's talking about throwing all this stuff back in the landfills again. So how do we make it profitable again? And, you know, in D.C., you're right, there's no tax here, there's no fee for your garbage can, for your garbage bag. It just...

  • 11:55:06

    REHMSo here's the other question. Do you think that the kind of reporting you've done on what's happening here in D.C. might at least prompt the D.C. Council to take another look?

  • 11:55:21

    DAVISI've spoken to some council members, and certainly last year as they were debating about these bigger bins, there was some call, well, maybe we should do what Washington state is doing now of sorting with composting, and it very well might be that something like that happens. There are big cities on the East Coast, and certainly you've got to look at -- the East Coast is not where the West Coast is on this issue. D.C., for all of its troubles, is recycling more than New York City, and they produce a lot more material than D.C. does.

  • 11:55:44

    DAVISAnd so how do you get big cities on the East Coast? Mayor Bill de Blasio has talked about a zero-waste campaign there. My guess, we'll see the same thing in D.C. I mean, we'll get a lot of discussion about this, and so where does it take us?

  • 11:55:55


  • 11:55:57

    KNEISSI wanted to step back a bit and emphasize that recycling is a good thing, and we've made great progress in the last 20 years. For example, curbside pickup has moved from 500 communities to 10,000 communities, and we've seen great development. And the reason why recycling is at the level it's at is we've made it as easy as possible to recycle, and that's important. The larger bin, single-stream facilities, now we've...

  • 11:56:27

    REHMIt may be the larger bin isn't what is called for here, at least from what I'm hearing from Tim Croll. Maybe the larger bin needs another look and maybe some adaptation of what they're doing in Seattle and San Francisco.

  • 11:56:42

    CROLLI would say....

  • 11:56:51

    REHMWhat I love about this program today is that we've heard a variety of views and cities, municipalities, states across the country are going to do it their own way and perhaps find better ways. Sharon Kneiss, Aaron Davis, Susan Collins, Tim Croll, thank you all, and thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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