The journey of the blue bag
A look inside Pittsburgh's single-stream recycling system — and why it's not quite working.
Single-stream recycling:
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.

Pittsburgh recyclable items
These items are eligible for recycling in Pittsburgh. Residents are not required to separate them, the reason the system is called ‘single-stream recycling.’
Recyclables comprise plastic, numbers 1-5 and 7; aluminum and steel cans; glass bottles, jugs and jars; newspapers, junk mail, magazines and paperboard; cardboard beverage and soup cartons; and flattened cardboard.

contamination problems

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.

Employees oversee the recycling operations at Recycle Source in Hazelwood. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)
Dumping and sorting

In the back of the truck, which carries up to 10 tons, city residents’ curbside recycling makes its way to Recycle Source on Vespucius Street in Hazelwood, a materials recovery facility along the Monongahela River.

Mr. Wright weighs in at the entrance and dumps the load of plastic bags, mangled cardboard and broken glass onto what's called a tipping floor. As many as 14 city trucks drop off each day.

At the materials recovery center, a series of machines that rely on physics, as well as the human hands and eyes of 60 employees, sort the items for 16 hours a day.

For nearly a decade, the city has collected recyclables in a single-stream fashion, without much education for how the public should prepare them. Prior to November 2008, the city followed a dual-stream system.

“Back then the newspaper industry was different. So newspapers had to be separate, then bottles and cans together. Over the years we were able to add more and more plastics to the mix, even more so when we went to single stream,” Shawn Wigle, program supervisor at the city’s Department of Public Works Bureau of Environmental Services.

Today the city collects co-mingled mixed paper; cardboard; glass; aluminum and steel cans; and mixed plastics numbers 1 through 5 and number 7.

blue bag problems


The blue plastic bags that residents have been trained to use for recyclables are actually a contaminant in the sorting process, and a headache for workers at Recycle Source, the recycling sorting facility the city of Pittsburgh uses. They are prone to getting wrapped around the sorting machinery, breaking it and interrupting the process. Until recently, a bag breaker mechanically tore open the plastic encasements to empty the contents. For reasons he would not specify, Recycle Source plant manager John Hudock said that workers now manually do it.


One solution would be for residents to use bins instead of bags. A $3.2 million budget request by the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services to distribute “smart” bins, with a barcoding system for drivers, was denied. However, the Pennsylvania Resources Council received funding to provide up to 5,000 bins to city residents in 2018. Grant Ervin, the city’s chief resiliency officer, said another budget request for bins will be made this year. He also added, ”residents are not precluded from getting bins themselves.“ Bins can also be purchased at common big-box stores.

interesting fact

If you recycle your plastic bags at the drop-off points located at several local stores, most likely they’re being sold to the Virginia-based company Trex Lumber to be used to make outdoor decks, according to Robert Bylone, executive director of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center. Other composite decking manufacturers in Pennsylvania also purchase plastic bags.

From the tipping floor, the items move through a machine that regulates the amount of materials that flow onto a moving belt. Workers stand on the sides, performing quality control — manually breaking open and removing plastic bags from the mix. Those busted bags end up in landfills.

Cardboard bounces over a series of perpendicular spinning metal wheels, with points like stars, and goes into a separate area. If any plastic bags make it this far, there’s a chance they’ll jam the machinery. On the August afternoon when the Post-Gazette visited, a red, white and blue banner spun round and round the axle.

Heavier materials fall between the metal wheels onto a set of belts below. Magnets pick up the metals. Any glass that hasn’t broken already is sent through a crusher, after which the pieces are run through a trammel system, where small things like bottle caps and grocery store receipts hopefully escape through 1.5-by-1.5-inch squares.

Tiny pieces of glass likewise contaminate other materials.

Plastics go through a mechanized optical sorter that separates PET from higher density plastics (think bottled water containers vs. laundry detergent containers), but workers still run manual quality control. The same goes for paper; it’s separated by weight, but employees still manually check it before it goes to a “hot baler” that runs the entire 16-hour day.

“The downside is you lose a lot of the glass, you lose material contaminated by glass, and you lose some value of materials sent into market because of that contamination.”

Recycle Source plant manager John Hudock buzzes through the tour, and through repeated follow-up questions about the sorting process, not wanting to “paint a little too in-depth of a picture. I don’t want to disclose too much to competitors.”

Experts say this manner of mixing then sorting diminishes the value of materials on the secondary market.

“On one hand, the advocates for single stream tell me that it about doubles the amount of material you get. So it’s not just about convenience for convenience sake,” said John Dernbach, director of Widner University’s Environmental Law and Sustainability Center and one of the architects of Pennsylvania’s 1988 recycling law. “The downside is you lose a lot of the glass, you lose material contaminated by glass, and you lose some value of materials sent into market because of that contamination. Thoughtful people are looking at ways to address this issue. What those ways might be, well the most obvious might be you have glass separate from everything.”

According to recycling industry estimates, 15 percent of everything taken to materials recovery facilities goes to a landfill.

Mr. Hudock said what gets sent to the landfill — which he describes as the “absolute last resort” — fluctuates between 15 and 20 percent depending on the month.

“Getting to actual recycle rate is difficult because we’re sending them stuff with 14 percent of garbage, and they’re sending people stuff with a certain percentage of trash,” says Mr. Winkler.

Carry All Products Glass in Connellsville cleans and sorts glass before selling it. (Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette)
What happens to the big pile?

All of that crushed, mixed-up glass is a loss for the city. Most glass collected from Pittsburgh’s residential curbsides travels from Recycle Source to Carry All Products Glass in Connellsville, where it’s cleaned and optical sorting machines separate it by color and size, before the company sells it to a manufacturer.

“If [Recycle Source is] selling it good for them, but they might be just paying to get rid of it,” Mr. Winkler says.

Carry All Products management did not return repeated inquiries regarding how single-stream recycling has affected the secondary glass market.

“Single-stream recycling is like scrambling an egg and then unscrambling it,” Mr. Stockdale says. “This is a question of quality in American recycling today. We’ve made it so easy for the consumer, we’ve ignored the quality recycling.”

Back at Recycle Source’s loud, airy facility along the river, bales of number 1 through 7 mixed plastics sit in the warehouse, while Mr. Hudock waits for the market to come around.

“They’re all marketable if you can individually sort them,” Mr. Hudock says. “We’re not sorting because the market is bad right now. There’s a lot of factors that weigh into it. It’s seasonal.”

“They might be just paying to get rid of it.”

Once the market goes up, he says, they’ll re-sort the bales.

As for paper, Mr. Hudock says about two truck loads of paper bales leave per day.

Metals, he said, go to “a handful of buyers in the area.” His father owns Alumisource in Monessen, but Mr. Hudock says he does not sell to the company.

Despite repeated inquiries, Mr. Hudock would not reveal to whom he sells the recovered materials, only that “there’s a variety of domestic and international customers we serve on a monthly basis.” He estimates about 10 to 15, depending on the month and market.

Mr. Winkler says the city does not have that information. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection officials say they don’t have that information either, despite granting the city money for its recycling performance.

“There’s a pretty high percentage of what you set out on your curbside in Pittsburgh that’s likely to end up on a different continent before it ends up as a new product,” Mr. Stockdale says. China, Central and South America are the mostly likely candidates, he says,  “because domestic paper mills are not willing to buy lower quality paper.”

For example, American Eagle Paper Mills near Altoona empties 15 truck loads of scrap paper per day — but only higher grade paper from print shops, and even unused waste from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cartons.

“We make first-quality paper that looks just like paper that was made from virgin trees,” said Julie Skibniewski, marketing director. “[Mixed paper] is a lower grade of waste product. You can’t be sure of fibers going into it. That’s not a high enough classification of fiber for what we’re making.”

Mr. Stockdale said that material recovery operations like Recycle Source most likely use several brokers and cannot identify exactly where secondary materials end up.

“It’s kind of market chaos.”

Now that China is instituting new policies for imports, Mr. Winkler said Recycle Source and the city are negotiating new pricing for waste paper. China consumes half of the world’s scrap paper, two-thirds of the world’s scrap plastics, and a significant amount of e-waste, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

But as China’s economy improves, it can afford to be more picky about what it accepts. Because it no longer wants heavily contaminated recyclables showing up in its ports, it has now set new limits on how much contamination in recycled materials is permitted. 

“Effectively they’ve [China] stopped issuing import permits. So it’s kind of market chaos,” Mr. Winkler says. “We have to see what the first quarter looks like.” Recycle Source will still take the materials, he says, “but it might change the way we value our materials.”

Pittsburgh says recycling is good business Relative to estimated landfill costs, recycling has saved the city $639,000 over 22 months.
Created with Highstock 6.0.4Recyclables processing cost/revenuesHypothetical land-fill costSavingsJan '16May '16Sep '16Jan '17May '17Sep '17-60k-40k-20k020k40k60k
Source: City of Pittsburgh; Research: Christopher Huffaker, Graphic: Ed Yozwick

Recycling vs. Landfill Costs

Single-stream recycling has many problems, but it’s attractive to cities because it’s a system full of financial incentives for municipalities. The more people throw into their single-stream recycling piles, the more money the city saves.

Despite the city not meeting Pennsylvania’s Act 101 recycling law goal of 35 percent (most recent numbers put the city’s recycling rate at 17.2 percent), a 2015 City Controller’s audit of the Bureau of Environmental Services’ Refuse and Recycling Division, found that trash collection tonnage is decreasing as recyclables collections is “increasing incrementally.”

Each year the city receives recycling program performance grants, based on recycling rates, under Act 101. The grants, which are funded by municipal solid waste fees paid at landfills, were just re-approved under the state’s most recent budget. Between 2005 and 2015, the most recent numbers available, the state granted Pittsburgh $4.5 million for residential and commercial recycling tonnage collected and $2 million for buying equipment, signage and other projects.

The city also saves when it takes materials to the materials recovery facility (Pittsburgh uses Recycle Source) rather than the landfill. Contracts show that the city pays between $25 to $29 per solid waste ton taken to two landfills, Waste Management in Moon and Allied Waste Systems in Imperial. For each ton of comingled recycling sold to Recycle Source, the city receives 60 percent of the materials’ value — based on a regional monthly price index — minus a $68 per ton fee for the labor of sorting.

If Recycle Source cannot bring to market what the city recycling truck dumps on its tipping floor, the city pays $40 per ton for Recycle Source to landfill it. Mr. Winkler said he’s working on negotiating a better rate.

Donald King of Sheridan puts recyclables in the back of a garbage truck. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)
What can the city do to improve its recycling effort?

Pittsburgh is not the only municipality that ends up with devalued recycling commodities because of the messy single-stream process. Single-stream collection is a national trend.

“The dark downside is you’re led to believe that all your stuff is being recycled and it’s not,” Mr. Stockdale says.

However, the city is not planning any major changes.

Mr. Winkler says the logistics required to collect cleaner recyclables — by asking residents to separate — just aren’t feasible for the city.

Having separate trucks haul separate materials to separate facilities is “not in the foreseeable future.”

His department is already stretched after the Atlas Paper mill on the South Side sold its business and forced his trucks to haul the city’s scrap office paper to Moon.

“You’re led to believe that all your stuff is being recycled and it’s not.”

Nor are there any immediate plans for the office to conduct more public education on the city’s curbside recycling program or expand the fleet of trucks.

Mr. Winkler says his budget allows for the hiring of an assistant, bringing the city’s recycling division staff to four — the most employees since he started in 2014.

He said the city’s six recycling drop-off points — in East Liberty, Hazelwood, West End, Knoxville, the Strip District and Point Breeze — allow residents a place to separate materials. However, they are collected in a single-stream fashion.

Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer for Pittsburgh, says the administration hopes to implement bin collection to “alleviate some of the challenges” and inconsistencies presented by single-stream collection.

But that’s not good enough, say experts who would like to see sweeping change.

“Recycling doesn’t work if you just collect the stuff,” Mr. Dernbach says. “You have to be able to turn the material you collect into a marketable product. In the best of all worlds, the people who collect should try to turn it into the most valuable product they can.”

Ashley Murray is a former Post-Gazette intern.


Design: Dan Marsula | Development: Laura Malt Schneiderman

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