Investigation: Some of Philly's recyclables are being burned, not reused

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You collect it, sort it, and think it is being recycled, as reported by Chad Pradelli during Action News at 11 on October 23, 2018.

You collect it, sort it, and think it is being recycled.

But instead of being reused, some of the recyclables in the City of Philadelphia are being burned.

The reason comes down to money. In the past, municipalities actually made money getting rid of recyclables.

Not anymore.

In recent years, the price to get rid of bottles and other recyclables has skyrocketed, leaving budgets in tatters.

Why is the price going up? China, which used to be a dumping ground for much of America's recycling, has tightened its standards.

They're now turning away some foreign garbage.

"I would say we're in a bit of a crisis given what's going on in China with their strict regulations banning certain materials," said Commissioner Carlton Williams of the Philadelphia Streets Department.

China is now keeping a close eye on what, in recycling parlance, is called contamination. It's when the potential recyclables come in wet, or still contain food or residual waste.

All of those things play a big role in what they can accept and process.

In 2012, Philadelphia took in $6 million getting rid of its recycling. That was the last profitable year.

It now pays between $3 million and $4 million annually, and that number is climbing. The city's recycling contract with Republic Services expired at the end of September.

Commissioner Williams says, last year, the city paid Republic on average $16 per ton to get rid of recycling.

When the contract expired last month, Republic wanted $170 per ton until a new contract was reached. The city refused.

Waste Management stepped in and is now taking half of the city's recycling at a cost of $78 per ton.

The other half is being incinerated with other trash at a Southwest Philadelphia Covanta facility.

"Given the fact that this was an immediate hit to our whole process, we don't foresee this continuing. This is an interim strategy for us to try to address," said Williams. "At this point, no one is doing long-term contracts because the market is unstable."

Tom Judge deals with recycling for Upper Darby Township. He calls the situation "scary" and says it's difficult for his township to budget given the market's volatility.

"It's an awful lot of money and we do have to watch it every month," he said.

Both Williams and Judge say it's imperative we continue to recycle. Large municipalities like Philadelphia and Upper Darby are required to do so under state law.

But they question how we approach it, given some products are more valuable than others.

"We have to look at what we are doing, what products we are recycling, what marketplace there is at the secondary level, and perhaps find a different way of disposing of the product," said Judge.

The City of Philadelphia wants a 10-year contract and currently has the recycling contract out for bid.

Republic Services did not return our phone calls.

Municipal leaders say it's imperative people recycle properly.

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