Could China’s decision last year to stop accepting recyclable materials from the U.S. lead to innovative, more efficient techniques domestically?
Pennsylvania and other states still must find ways to repurpose or dispose of post-consumer waste, especially plastic and cardboard.
Matt Cougle thinks new, home-grown technologies and recycling entrepreneurs could pick up the slack, as new technologies evolve for trash-to-energy programs and plants or creation of repurposed goods.
“Though the markets are severely depressed, recycling is not dead. As an industry we have to do a better job of education and communication,” said Cougle, who is COO of Cougle’s Recycling Inc. in Hamburg.
Across Pennsylvania roughly 7.84 million tons of material were recycled in 2016, the most recent data available, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
That was down nearly 50 percent from 2014, when a reported 16.91 million tons of material were recycled, the agency said.
The report does not count comingled, or single stream-materials, which refers to materials collected together rather than sorted by type, such as plastic, paper, metal and glass.
Since 1988 the Pennsylvania Municipal Waste Planning Recycling and Waste Reduction Act, or Act 101, requires larger municipalities to recycle. Many cities have specific recycling guidelines and fees.
Act 101 also requires counties to create and manage their own recycling plans.
Trash hauling and recycling companies that switched to single-stream recycling aim to make recycling compliance easier for consumers.
But it has a downside.
Cougle said consumers see all their waste go into one collection truck, and they become suspicious. Because haulers use different types of equipment and processes, he said transparency is crucial to bring everyone on board.
And even when consumers think they’re recycling properly, often they’re not: either because the material isn’t accepted by the recycler, trash is placed incorrectly with recycling; or bottles, cans and plastic containers aren’t thoroughly cleaned.
“We need to do a better job of educating,” Cougle said.
About 25 percent of waste in trash collection bins could be recycled, while 25 percent of material meant for curbside recycling can’t be, which contaminates the lot and winds up in landfills, said Dieter Scheel, vice president of business development for Sustainable Waste Solutions in Franconia Township, Montgomery County.
Contamination is a major reason China has stopped accepting U.S. recyclables.
“As the recycling community we have to get the information out there in a cohesive way,” Scheel said.