The problem with recylcing is that a storm of falling oil prices, a strong dollar and a weakened economy in China have sent prices for American recyclables plummeting worldwide. Trying to encourage conservation, progressive lawmakers and environmentalists have made matters worse. By pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins — while demanding almost no sorting by consumers — the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system. “We kind of got everyone thinking that recycling was free,” says Bill Moore. “It’s never really been free, and in fact, it’s getting more expensive.”
One big problem is that China doesn't want to buy our garbage anymore. In the past China had sent so many consumer goods to the United States that all the shipping containers were coming back empty. So US companies began stuffing the return-trip containers with recycled cardboard boxes, waste paper and other scrap. China could, in turn, harvest the raw materials. Everyone won. But China has launched "Operation Green Fence" — a policy to prohibit the import of unwashed post-consumer plastics and other "contaminated" waste shipments. In China, containerboard, a common packaging product from recycled American paper, is trading at just over $400 a metric ton, down from nearly $1,000 in 2010. China also needs less recycled newsprint; the last paper mill in Shanghai closed this year. "If the materials we are exporting are so contaminated that they are being rejected by those we sell to," says Valerie Androutsopoulos, "maybe it’s time to take another look at dual stream recycling."