Another Curbside Recycling Program Bites the Dust


Some of us remember growing up in the seventies, at a time when residential recycling was just coming into its own. Back then, recycling came with the promise of a better future. We were told by our teachers that we could save the world by recycling paper, cardboard, and glass. And yet today, curbside recycling is a shell of its former self. In Virginia, yet another curbside recycling program is scheduled to end in the summer of 2022.

Slowly but surely, municipalities around the country are ceasing their curbside recycling programs. One program after another bites the dust in an effort to save money wherever possible. It is certainly not what the folks who championed recycling fifty years ago anticipated.

No More in Chesapeake, VA

One of the more recent curbside recycling programs to bite the dust is that of Chesapeake, VA. The city has had recycling in place since the early 1970s. But now, the money dedicated to the program has to go somewhere else. Chesapeake just doesn't have the funds to continue an effort that cost millions annually.

According to news reports, the city is beginning to implement a new compensation plan for public safety employees. The plan includes a $5,000 retention bonus for city safety personnel, including police officers. City leaders felt they needed the new compensation plan to compete with other cities offering sign-on bonuses and additional incentives.

In short, Chesapeake is competing with other Virginia municipalities for qualified public safety workers. In order to keep employees from leaving for greener pastures, they have to up the compensation they offer. Furthermore, the money to pay them has to come from somewhere. City officials elected to scrap the recycling program, among other things.

A Program That Doesn't Pay

The most unfortunate thing about the plan is that it reveals a fundamental truth about curbside recycling: it is an idea that doesn't pay. Chesapeake is not earning any money on curbside recycling. In fact, they are spending millions to operate it. And they are not the only ones. Municipalities all around the country continue operating money-losing recycling programs.

Curbside recycling is what it is because of the amount of labor involved in the process. Labor costs money. Not only that, but there is also a lot of overhead involved in collecting, sorting, storing, and shipping municipal solid waste. It all adds up to recycling programs that lose money year after year.

Industrial Recycling Works

Recycling itself is not the problem. In fact, industrial recycling works. For example, Seraphim Plastics will buy scrap plastic from factories and industrial companies in five states. The Tennessee-based company then transports the plastic scrap to one of their facilities, grinds it down, and sells it to manufacturers who mix it with virgin plastic to make new products.

Seraphim can buy and sell plastic, and make money doing so, because their business model eliminates the biggest expense of residential recycling: sorting. There is no sorting involved in recycling industrial plastics. All the plastic Seraphim recycles is 'clean' in the sense that it is a single type of plastic kept separate from all others.

The inherent differences between residential and industrial recycling are what make the difference between losing money and making it. Unfortunately, residential curbside recycling was always destined to fail because the fundamentals are not there. It is a lesson too many municipalities are learning too late.

In Chesapeake, VA, curbside recycling ends in the summer of 2022. The city is working on a way to bring it back, but there are no guarantees. Curbside recycling is just too expensive for a city that needs the money for more important things.

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