COVID-19 Good News: Americans Recycle More During Lockdown

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First the good news: People are cleaning up and recycling more during The Great Pause caused by COVID-19. Does this promise a new era of sustainability-minded living? We will have to wait to see, but the initial indications are surprising. As the pandemic passes, citizens have an unprecedented chance to reshape their recycling systems.

As stay-at-home orders took hold around the nation during March, recycling programs that remained open saw substantial increases in the volume of paper and cardboard. Even cities that plunged into inactivity, like New York, report that home trash and recycling volume was up 4.2 percent compared to a year ago, Resource Recycling reported. Similar increases were reported in Ohio, South Carolina, and Michigan.

“People are staying at home, getting a head start on spring cleaning, and they’re bringing unprecedented amounts of material to our convenience centers,” John Robertson, solid waste director at the Wake County Solid Waste District in North Carolina said in a press release. The county’s cardboard recycling volume increased by 45 percent in March, mixed recycling grew by 20 percent, and appliance recycling rose by 50 percent compared to February 2020.

But not all the news is good because people don’t follow recycling guidelines. Contamination rates — the volume of materials that had to be discarded due to incorrectly prepared recyclables — also increased. More material was sent to the landfill than if consumers had done a better job cleaning, drying, and sorting their recycling.

Taking the time to learn how to recycle materials will make a bigger difference today than before COVID-19. Mistakes in recycling preparations can ruin more material as volumes increase.

Meanwhile, recycling activity in the Asian countries that traditionally purchase U.S. recyclables has collapsed during the lockdown. There will be a glut of materials overseas in the future that will depress domestic recyclable material prices. As a result, U.S. recyclers may need to process more material at home because it will not be profitable (or sustainable) to send overseas.

As residential recycling grew, business recycling rates fell off a cliff as companies shut down, adding to recycling companies’ financial woes. Normally, business recycling revenue offsets or subsidizes lower-profit residential recycling programs. Now, recycling contracts may be revisited across the country as the industry adapts to the new, post-COVID reality.

In short, everything has changed and we have a chance to recalibrate the U.S. recycling system after the pandemic.

In light of the changing approaches to work — including more remote work and flexible hours — that will follow the lockdown, it is an important moment for citizens to speak up about recycling as a priority. If recycling companies, particularly the four major trash haulers that own or operate 50 percent of U.S. recycling facilities, are going to renegotiate contracts, everyone needs to get involved to ensure the people’s priorities are addressed along with how to make recycling profitable.

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