Cleveland Epitomizes the Failures of Curbside Recycling

If you are a Cleveland resident hoping that your city will revive its curbside recycling program, don’t hold your breath. It would be surprising to see the program resurrected by the end of this year (2021), if at all. Right now, things do not look too good.

Cleveland had a curbside recycling program until April 2020. That’s when their existing contract expired. In the 12+ months since, Cleveland has attempted to solicit new bids. They have received but one. Had they accepted that bid, the city’s costs for recycling would have risen by some $6 million.

What Happened to Making Money?

This writer is old enough to remember when the initial push for recycling plastics was launched in the 1970s. Way back then, we were told that recycling would save the planet. Recycling proponents only saw and talked about the good points. For example, they promised cities would actually make money by selling recycled products.

At the time, the thinking was that companies would buy recycled materials because that was the right thing to do. It was also assumed that such materials would be cheaper than their virgin counterparts. It turns out that proponents were wrong on both counts.

Businesses exist, first and foremost, to make money. This sometimes creates a conundrum when deciding what constitutes the ‘right thing to do’. Is it right to spend more money on recycled materials and risk company health – which could eventually lead to downsizing and layoffs – or is it better to keep costs as low as possible so as to keep people employed and contributing to the local economy?

As far as recycled products being cheaper, they just aren’t. Recycling is a laborious and time-consuming process. It costs money. Companies are going to buy cheaper virgin plastic before they invest in more expensive recycled material.

What Happened in Cleveland?

Knowing what we know about curbside recycling programs, Cleveland’s experience should not be all that surprising. What happened there is just a reflection of the market as a whole. In the simplest possible terms, the market for recycled products has collapsed. That is it in a nutshell.

If Cleveland wants to recycle #1 and #7 plastics, for example, they have to be able to sell those plastics to someone. No buyers ultimately mean the material goes to a landfill. The problem Cleveland is facing is the same problem every other municipality is up against – no one wants to buy their plastics.

We have gotten so good at manufacturing virgin plastic that we can do it very cheaply. Brand-new plastic is less expensive than recycled plastic. More importantly, virgin plastic has all of its integrity still intact. Recycled products have lost some of that integrity. So buying it is akin to spending more for an inferior product.

Recycling a Losing Proposition

At the end of the day, recycling is a losing proposition. It is a loser in the sense that it is hard to make money doing so, at least where consumer plastics are concerned. Commercial plastic recycling is big business dominated by companies like Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics. But Seraphim doesn’t deal in consumer plastics because there’s no money in it.

Recycling is also a loser in the sense that all recycled products are inferior. You cannot recycle without losing quality or integrity. It is a basic law of physics. As such, prices have to reflect lower quality recyclables. If they don’t, good luck selling recycled products.

In Cleveland, the city council is hopeful that curbside recycling will be revived. The mayor’s office isn’t so optimistic. Residents will just have to wait to see how it all turns out.

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