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Labor Shortages Adding to Recycling Woes in Some Cities

Curbside recycling has not been all that successful in this country since municipalities started implementing it in the 1970s. In fact, some 90% of all consumer plastics thrown into curbside recycling bins never get recycled anyway. If that’s not enough, curbside recycling programs now have another big problem: not enough workers to meet staffing demands.

In cities across the country, recycling programs are suffering due to an ongoing labor shortage. Jacksonville, Florida is a primary example. The Duval County city has been experiencing problems with its solid waste contractor in recent months, problems that have only been reinforced by thousands of complaints from customers unhappy that their recycling materials are not being picked up.

Jacksonville’s contract with their current service provider will end shortly. When it does, a new provider will take over. As for the current company, Republic Services of Jacksonville, they claim that labor shortages are preventing them from honoring pick-up schedules.

Recycling Is Labor-Intensive

The COVID pandemic has negatively affected just about every industry, waste management included. Pandemic shutdowns brought recycling operations to a standstill in many cities across the country. Employees were laid off as a result. Now that it’s time to go back to work, some would prefer to stay safe by not returning. Others have long since found new jobs.

What is difficult about curbside recycling is that it is labor-intensive. There are no machines capable of automatically separating recyclable plastics from unwanted material. Every ounce of material thrown into a curbside recycling bin has to be manually sorted at a recovery station. Manual sorting requires people willing to work.

Equally challenging is the fact that recyclable sorting is not a high paying career. Recycling center sorters are not earning six figures annually. They aren’t even earning on the higher end of two figures. That makes it difficult for companies to hire and retain sorting staff.

A Possible Solution Exists

Despite curbside recycling’s woes, there is a way around them. One possible solution is to transform curbside recycling so that it more closely resembles commercial plastic recycling. The truth is that recycling commercial plastics is highly successful. What is their secret? No need for sorting.

Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee company that buys scrap plastic and recycles it. They are active in seven states including Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio. Key to their success is the fact that the commercial plastic waste they buy can go straight from truck to processing without any intermediate intervention.

Seraphim might pick up a load of plastic totes from an Indiana customer. Those totes don’t have to be separated from any other materials. Likewise, they do not have to go through an intense cleaning process. Within minutes of coming off the truck, they could be transformed into regrind ready to go right back out the door again.

A Complete Transformation

Adapting the commercial plastic recycling model to curbside programs would require a complete transformation of our current system. It would require developing standards for consumer plastics, standards that manufacturers would be willing to adhere to. It would also require more stringent separating by consumers.

It would help a great deal if private companies were willing to handle recycling instead of leaving it to municipalities. Different companies could collect different types of plastics and recycle them accordingly. They would rely on customers who agreed to not contaminate separated plastics prior to pick up.

In theory, it is possible to solve curbside recycling woes. Practically speaking, it is not likely to ever happen. Our system would need too many changes that would require too much cooperation among the various players.