Changes in international markets along with skyrocketing processing costs have thrown the industry into a tailspin.
In this first installment of our series Reduce, Reuse, Refocus, we sort through the confusion about recycling.
We begin at the end of the line.
It's Waste Management’s Greenstar Material Recovery Facility (MRF) nestled next to the blimp hangar in south Akron.
This is where recycling haulers from all over the region dump material for recycling.
It was shiny new back in 2012 when Greenstar Recycling, now a subsidiary of Waste Management, first opened the facility. Now thick gray grime coats the walkways and filthy plastic bags hang like curtains from beneath the sorting machinery.
And it's deafeningly loud.
Betty Trimper, the regional manager for Waste Management, guides us through the maze of walkways where workers sort would-be recyclables into saleable products.
“This is the first line of defense right here," she shouted as we watched a trio of workers grab trash from a conveyor belt and toss it into nearby bins.
Judging by the amount of pure garbage flowing past us, it’s plain that people are genuinely confused about what can and cannot be recycled.
“There’s a bag of trash, there’s a hose, wire hangers. There’s some clothes,” she laments.
None of that stuff is recyclable, yet people put it in recycling bins, which she said gums up the works.
“Things like plastic bags, Christmas lights, all those wrappables that people are unfortunately putting in the bin, create an operational challenge where the equipment cannot segregate the material and now we have to go in and clean those screens,” she shouted with more than a hint of aggravation.
Trimper guessed that around a quarter of the material that flows into the MRF is nonrecyclable, what insiders call "contamination."
A recycling tailspin
And contamination is killing the industry, said Waste Management’s Vince Crawford.
“If we have all this contamination in our recycling stream then it makes it much harder for our plant manager to make a good product,” he said.
We saw that product — huge bales of plastic, paper and aluminum neatly stacked at the end of the sorting line inside the plant.
Crawford said contamination became a significant problem two years ago when China abruptly stopped taking our trash-mixed recycling.
“The recycling industry got turned upside down on its head in a very short time frame,” he said.
And the industry is still recovering.
Prices for recycled materials are at record lows, Crawford said, just as they’ve become more expensive to produce.
Much of the blame lies with the switch to one bin recycling, or single stream, which made it easier for consumers who no longer had to separate paper, cans and glass — but who also started mixing in more trash.
Is glass recyclable? Well, it's complicated.
Confusion over what should and shouldn’t go in the bin is understandable, even for conscientious recyclers, because the message is often mixed.
Marcie Kress is head of Summit ReWorks, an organization that helps educate the public about recycling.
She listed the items that are accepted for recycling in Summit County.
“Paper, cardboard, metal food and beverage cans, cartons, and plastic bottles and jugs.”
That is, until I asked Kress about what’s not on the list, namely glass.
“Our agency currently educates the items that we have because they’re the common denominator for all of Summit County,” she said.
Actually, I asked five times whether glass can be recycled in Summit County, and the answers were far from clear.
"So, if I live in Summit County, I should not put glass in my recycling?"
“The conversation is a little bit more complex than that,” said Kress.
Recycling should be simple. Right?
Apparently it's complex because each of the 31 municipalities in Summit County has a separate contract with recyclers, and Kress said none includes glass.
(There are communities in Summit County where residents are able to recycle glass. Check out our recycling guide for specific information.)
Obviously for the public, this only adds to the confusion.
“There’s a lot of disjointed messages out there,” said Bill Steiner, head of recycling in neighboring Portage County, where glass is recycled — for now.
“We actually considered at one time eliminating glass from our stream,” he said.
Instead, Portage residents pay extra to recycle bottles and jars.
Steiner said what used to be a money maker is now costing the county extra.
“Now we’re writing checks for $24,000 or $25,000 per month to have the recyclables processed," he said, "and glass is a portion of that.”
Brent Bell, the vice president for recycling at Waste Management, said consumers need to get used to paying extra to recycle.
“You have to view it like your waste, your water, your sewer bills,” he said.
Echoing Marcie Kress, Bell said the only way for the industry to survive is for people to put in the bin only the short list of things that are always recyclable.
“I think there’s a lot of room in just taking the basics and getting those right,” he said.
Recycling had provided a way to feel good about single-use plastics and non-returnable glass – stuff now often headed for the landfill.
Recycling shouldn’t be that hard.
But in the absence of a unified set of policies, confusion remains a part of our efforts to be responsible consumers.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include additional information about glass recycling in Summit County.