An eye-opening article last month in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette got a lot of people thinking about a subject that often goes unnoticed: Recycling, and whether it’s actually working here in Pittsburgh.

Their story explored how items you put out for recycling may never actually get recycled, thanks to challenges like the general messiness of single-stream, limited resources and a decreased market demand for certain materials.

Processing all that plastic, glass, cardboard and paper products one a single stream isn’t always efficient. And yet, experts tell us, there’s no need to get discouraged.

“At the end of the day, using the City’s current single-stream recycling program is not some dark pit or an abyss where your stuff is not going to get recycled,” says Justin Stockdale, who works to boost recycling in Pittsburgh as the western regional director for the Pennsylvania Resources Council (PRC).

He mentions the many benefits of recycling in Pennsylvania, citing a study conducted by the Department of Environmental Protection-funded Recycling Markets Center last year, which sought to quantify the state’s recycling industry.

“The numbers they come up with are quite staggering,” Stockdale says, about findings that the recycling industry generated billions of dollars of economic activity and thousands of jobs in Pennsylvania. “It may not be performing optimally, but it is working, and has a ton of value both environmentally and economically.”

And with attention and effort, Stockdale says, “we can do better.”

A tour group at the Materials Recycling Facility. Image courtesy of the Pittsburgh Department of Public Works.

We’re hearing similar sentiments from Kyle Winkler, who serves as the recycling supervisor for the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works.

“I think it’s inherent in the system that there will be some contamination,” Winkler says, referencing how using single-stream can lead to non-recyclable materials getting mixed in with the bunch, or materials being too dirtied or destroyed in the process to be recycled.

Such inefficiencies have led to Pittsburgh’s current recycling rate hovering between 17 and 18, well under the national average of 34 percent. But, as Winkler points out, that national number is inflated by California, which has an exceptionally high rate of recycling compared to the rest of the country.

He says the rate also doesn’t factor in the work done by independent organizations such as Construction Junction, an East End-based nonprofit that accepts a wide variety of materials, from paper and cardboard to construction debris and furniture.

Progress on pain points?

Winkler admits that more can be done, and hopefully that’s on the horizon: He feels bolstered by a “greater focus and support” from Pittsburgh City Council and Mayor Bill Peduto.

To help residents figure out the puzzle of what can be recycled and what can’t (which will help keep that single stream of recyclables that everyone puts on their curb full of the right things), the City sent out a mailer at the beginning of 2018. They outlined what materials they accept, how to properly set out your recyclables for pickup and information on drop-off centers throughout the city.

It also dealt with bigger items: Curbside service covers bulk items like furniture, washers and dryers, but they’re considered refuse. While the updated mailer and other resources help, Winkler says Public Works would like to do more.

“You will hopefully towards the end of this year see a little more outreach beyond that mailer, which has been allowed because there’s been less stress about the budget and more emphasis on it because of market issues.” No specifics yet on what that further outreach will look like, but stay tuned.