A system that does not work
Kyle Winkler follows his gut: he jumps from the back of the hulking blue recycling truck to inspect a plastic “Grandma’s Original Recipes” potato salad container on the curb of Midland Street in Brookline. Inside, the city’s recycling supervisor finds some shriveled cherry tomatoes mixed in with a clump of black dog hair, large enough to fill the entire container. A disposable foil pan sits beside it, cake mashed and stuck to the sides. He declares both items too contaminated to toss into the truck.
“We see a lot of, let’s say, situations,” says the driver, Tyrone Wright, 66, of Manchester. Mr. Wright says he doesn’t always have time to scrutinize but employs his “spidey senses” to detect things that are non-recyclable — clamshell take-out containers, porcelain dishes, or yard debris stuffed into blue bags.
Mr. Wright releases the brake and continues on his route, navigating turns on tight — sometimes cobblestone — streets with cars parked on both sides. Mr. Wright’s co-driver James Herring, 56, of the North Side, and Mr. Winkler bend down to gather as many bags and boxes they can fit in their hands, on this biweekly nearly 6,000-house route, and toss them into the back of the truck. Mr. Herring pulls a lever to compact the load. Glass crunches and sprinkles down to the truck’s base.
“There’s just certain houses you know are going to have a lot of recycling, like this one right here,” Mr. Herring says as the truck stops on Clemesha Avenue, where blue and other colored plastic bags sit on the curb beside and tucked into cardboard boxes.
Across the street, several laundry detergent bottles hang from a string tied to the handle of a black garbage can with the stenciled word “Recycling” spray painted in gold.
Mr. Winkler says the piles are “acceptable but not what we want long-term. We’ve given folks a lot of leeway for how they put their recycling out.”
In fact, the blue — or any color — plastic bag you put out on the curb gums up the machines at the sorting facility. Because the city doesn’t require residents to sort recyclables, it means they pay someone else to do so, increasing costs and decreasing the value of the recycling effort. A portion of what you put in the bag ends up in a landfill, on a boat to China, or sitting in a warehouse waiting for prices to improve. And city officials can't say exactly how much of what's collected is actually recycled, or where the recycling goes after city trucks drop it off. Despite the good intentions of household recyclers, several waste experts and recycling industry workers say the city’s program — and American recycling in general — is broken.
Single-stream recycling is a cheap but inefficient system that experts describe as “rudderless and drifting,” if not outright broken. Contamination is both in and out of the hands of residents who pile recyclables on the curb every other week.
For instance, greasy cardboard pizza boxes and glass or plastic jars with food left in them are considered contaminants. (No water is used during the sorting process.)
Some items that are technically recyclable are not recoverable in every region, or worth it for sorting facilities to bring to market. John Hudock, manager of Recycle Source, the city’s recycling contractor, specifically mentioned the black plastic food containers you might find in the prepared foods section at Giant Eagle as an example. Even biodegradable plastics can contaminate the mix because they contain a different additive.
“The best way to think of recycling is a commodities market, no different than oil or orange futures,” said Justin Stockdale, western regional director for the Pennsylvania Resources Council.
Furthermore, some materials are automatically a loss. According to its contract, the city pays $17.50 for every ton of glass brought to Recycle Source. Because single-stream recycling produces broken, mixed glass — green, brown and clear — its value has decreased. Ironically, glass tends to be the heaviest of recyclable materials. Tiny shards also contaminate the mixed paper and plastics.
“What the packer truck does is squeezes everything inside of it so you don’t have to make trips to the recycling facility as much, saves time and saves money. All the glass breaks immediately. That’s the problem,” said John Dernbach, director of Widner University’s Environmental Law and Sustainability Center and one of the architects of Pennsylvania’s recycling law in 1988.
A 2017 report conducted by 100 Resilient Cities — a Rockefeller Foundation program of which Pittsburgh is a member — described the city’s waste and recycling programs as “a culmination of many programs introduced by many administrations over a period of decades.” The “fragmented and disjointed” program, the report went on, has created “a culture that knows that whatever is placed by the curb will eventually be collected by the city.”
The authors recommended that Pittsburgh implement a “pay-as-you-throw” trash fee system and stricter enforcement to encourage recycling.
The report was produced as a guideline for the city to reach “zero waste” by 2030, a goal Mayor Bill Peduto declared in 2015.
Pittsburgh’s current recycling rate is between 17 and 18 percent, well under the national average which is at 34 percent.
Grant Ervin, the city’s chief resilience officer, said the administration is planning “policy modernization” over the next one to five years, though he could not offer specifics.