LONDON GROVE — Earlier this month, Steve Burn and Scott Mengle stood in the recycling processing facility at Southeastern Chester County Refuse Authority off Route 926 in West Grove. Among the recyclables were soiled pizza boxes, empty oil quarts, broken glass and half-empty bottles of cooking oil. They know that a few items like these will likely end up causing the entire batch to be relegated to the landfill.
“When you put things in the recycling bin — glass, an olive oil container with a little oil in it, soda bottles — that all mixes together in the truck,” said Mengle, general manager of the SECCRA landfill, which serves 24 municipalities in southern Chester County. “What happens is the mixed paper ends up getting really contaminated by all the liquids and broken glass. The whole thing will get landfilled.”
Recycling habits of Chester County residents are so bad, the recycling operation locally is in jeopardy. If just 10 percent of a 12-ton load is contaminated, the entire load goes to the trash. And the more use the landfill gets, the shorter its lifespan. Mengle estimates the 300-acre SECCRA landfill only has 42 years left, but proper recycling could extend that time considerably.
“That jar of olive oil with some residuals in it can contaminate so much more, you are much better off throwing it in the trash,” said Burn, SECCRA site manager. “It has to be clean and dry when you toss it in the recycling can.”
Because all recycling is now single-stream, the material must be hand sorted on the recycling line. This adds to the cost of recycling. That cost is passed on to the consumer.
“I would say we are very close to a crisis,” said Mengle. “If it is more expensive to recycle than to put in a landfill, people just aren’t going to recycle. If recycling gets too expensive, we are afraid people won’t recycle.”
Right now, Mengle said the cost per ton to recycle is close to the cost to landfill it. Soon the cost to recycle will surpass the cost to landfill it.
“This means that people will choose the path of least cost,” Mengele said. “Instead of only the right stuff being recycled, people will recycle nothing, and everything will go to the landfill, and the landfill will fill up very fast.”
To address the problem, SECCRA officials are being proactive. A campaign to educate residents on the proper way to recycle is underway, and in the near future, glass may no longer be accepted for recycling.
“Glass never had value,” Mengle said. “Sand is cheap. If we take glass out of the mix, it will contaminate paper less. But regardless of what we do, whether we eliminate glass or not, we need people to keep their recyclables clean and dry.”
The SECCRA landfill takes in, on average, 500 tons of trash a day. At its highest peak, on a clear day, the cooling towers at Limerick Nuclear Power Plant and the Salem Nuclear Power plant in New Jersey are clearly visible. The area used for landfill is double lined with 80-mil heavy plastic to ensure nothing leaks into the earth. Residents generate about one ton of waste per person per year. To date, more than 1 million tons of waste have been collected there since it began operating in 1986.
The driving factor in a successful recycling program is economics, and recycling had been a lucrative business until China, which had accepted more than 40 percent of American paper, glass, metal and plastics, essentially banned the importation of recyclables from the U.S. in response to trade wars. No longer are recycled materials generated in the U.S. shipped to China, where they were used to create new goods. The fallout means that U.S. recycling firms only make money on in-demand products.
“Even though we take Number 3 through 7 plastics, there isn’t a big market here for those,” Mengle said. “So it’s a loss leader. Our processors take it, knowing they will make $800 a ton on Number 1 plastics, while costing them $5 a ton to separate the Number 3 through 7 plastics. We are now in the negative because the undesirables are greater than the desirables.”
Chester County isn’t alone. Hundreds of local recycling programs in American cities and towns are collapsing. Some states are now sending newspapers, cans, and bottles to landfills, while others are burning their waste instead.
Many communities used to make money selling trash to private recycling companies that would process the materials and then sell them to China or to manufacturers. Now they pay those companies to take their recycling away. Philadelphia went from making $67 a ton selling trash six years ago to having to pay $40 a ton today to get rid of its recycling.
And in Fort Worth, Texas, the recycling program there earned the city $1 million two years ago. This year, it's projected to lose $1.6 million. "A year ago California earned $100 a ton for mixed paper. Now, they need to pay to get rid of it. Trends like these began happening all over the country after China pulled out of the recycling market.
For the big ticket items, such as electronics and computers, SECCRA is one of the few landfills that accept those at no cost. Residents can even bring in refrigerators for a nominal fee and they will be recycled.
“Freon is dangerous to the environment,” Mengle said. “Most places charge $70 to recycle a refrigerator. We charge just $12. We have people trained and certified in certified Freon removal.”
But for some Chester County residents, it still comes down to money regardless of the environment. Mengle said that a man brought a refrigerator to the landfill earlier this year in his pickup truck. When he was told it would cost him $12, the man drove off. When Mengle drove home from work that same day, he saw the refrigerator on the side of Mosquito Lane.
But Burn said there’s still hope, if local residents can learn to properly recycle.
“The problem is people negate all our efforts by not disposing of recycling properly,” Burn said. “We need to convince people that throwing away is OK, because if it’s not recyclable, it will be rejected.”