On August 31, Baltimore suspended its curbside recycling program. The coronavirus pandemic and fear of infection had caused about a third of the city’s solid waste workers to call in sick or take days off, which triggered a trash collection crisis in the city.
To address the problem, the Department of Public Works directed all remaining workers in that division to concentrate only on trash pickup. As an alternative to curbside recycling, the city is asking residents to now drive their own recyclables to 14 drop-off centers scattered around the city, through November 1st.
One of the drop-off centers is here in Northwest Baltimore in front of Greenspring Middle School. Yesterday morning, a city worker tossed cardboard boxes into the back of a truck as he expressed anxieties about getting the virus on the job.
“Yeah, it’s been a hard time, with people being out,” the DPW worker said. “That’s why we’re having all this problem. I’m worried, but you know – you got to work, you got to work.”
Matt Garbark is the Acting Director of the Baltimore Department of Public Works.
“The coronavirus has just been hitting us, not only directly but indirectly as well, from a number of different points,” said Garbark. “And it’s really taken a toll on our workers and our ability to just get all of the trash picked up. So we’ve had trash tonnages increased. We’ve had a number of workers actually get sick with the coronavirus. And we have extremely long days, because we have to do all kinds of social distancing in the morning and the afternoon.”
Baltimore is not alone in suspending its curbside recycling program. At least 100 cities and counties across the country have put a pause on these programs during the coronavirus crisis, according to an industry publication called Utility Dive. Another 100 have permanently cancelled their curbside recycling, including Harrisonburg, VA; Beaumont, TX; and Indianapolis, Indiana.
However, the breakdowns in many of these recycling programs predate COVID-19. The markets for many recyclable materials started crashing in 2018 when China banned the import of most plastics and other materials headed for its massive recycling processing plants. For nearly a quarter century, China had processed about half of the world’s recyclables. China’s dramatic switch and decision to no longer import trash from other countries was part of an effort to become more self-sufficient in its sourcing of raw materials like glass and aluminum for industry. This is according to Adam Minter, author of a book titled “Junkyard Planet.”
“When that happened, it basically gutted the global recycling industry,” Minter said. “You have to remember with recycling: ultimately, it’s a raw material, and it needs to be made into something else. And if there’s no demand to make other stuff, then your recycling is essentially garbage, and your recycling program becomes a trash program. And it become a cost drag, at least in certain places, on local government.”
In Baltimore, that cost to recycle despite depressed recycling markets has been about $1.2 million a year, according to the Department of Public Works. But recycling also provides benefits. It keeps trash out of the city’s incinerator, which reduces air pollution. And recycling cuts the flow of waste into the city’s Quarantine Road Landfill, which is rapidly filling up and will be expensive to replace.
Although down in the dumps right now, recycling will likely bounce back as the pandemic subsides. Recycling is firmly established as a habit for many people – and it’s not a new one. After all, we humans have been recycling since the repurposing of bones into clubs and spears.
Anne Germain, a vice president at the National Waste and Recycling Association, said she’s optimistic about the future of recycling.
“I feel like there is a lot more attention by the public about the need for recycling and a lot more awareness – in particular with some of the ocean plastics and marine debris that we’ve been seeing,” Germain said. “And as a result, there is a demand by the public that something be done.”