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The Declining Case for Municipal Recycling

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recycling-cost-benefit-analysis

Garbage pickup is one of the core responsibilities and functions of many local governments. That service has been augmented, over the past four decades, by the collection of recyclables—typically paper, glass, metals, and plastic. Every major American city provides this service. Recycling has long been considered environmentally and financially beneficial. The materials would be reprocessed and used as newsprint, bottles, or cans, while the markets for such materials would make it possible to cover the costs of collection and reprocessing, or even to realize income. Even in periods of slack demand, the cost to dispose of recyclables was lower than that of mixed garbage—allowing cities to reap an economic benefit by paying less to get rid of some of their trash.

This apparent win-win situation has changed dramatically. China, which was importing several billion dollars’ worth of U.S. recyclables in 2017, announced a new policy, Operation National Sword, under which it would no longer permit the import of what it called “foreign trash.” The government stopped taking in other nations’ garbage partly because much of the material was not recyclable, and this was partly because of contamination. Pizza-box cardboard, for instance, is frequently contaminated by food residue, and plastic by dirty labels. As a result, much of the garbage that China imported was not recycled and ended up in landfills or incinerated. When Operation National Sword took effect in 2018, China insisted that it would accept only the noncontaminated recyclables that its manufacturers could use. As a result, the market for recyclables collapsed, and imports from the U.S. and elsewhere plunged.:snip:

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