By Richard Keller, Department of Public Works

Photo of the recycling symbol with recyclable items around it

You likely have seen it yourself, and probably more than once: someone puts an empty beverage can or bottle in the trash instead of putting it in the recycling bin sitting next to the garbage can.

Mind blowing, isn’t it?

Putting empty recyclables in a recycling bin should be as routine as putting trash in a trash can, yet many people are not recycling. In fact, over 90 percent of consumers have access to recycling through either curbside or drop-off programs, but unfortunately less than half of them use it (Moore & Associates, 2019). Baltimore County’s residential recycling rate was 18.2 percent in 2020. Why is it that most people do not recycle? Sometimes people see the process as too complicated. It can be confusing when you start reading the detailed requirements about what can and cannot be recycled or the different types of plastics and what they all are made from.

Getting caught up in the small details can make the process seem time-consuming and often leads people to giving up. To increase participation in recycling, we need to get back to basics and focus on the items that matter most.

Keep it simple

Let's keep recycling simple by focusing on the low-hanging fruit. There are a few everyday materials used in households and workplaces that make up the majority of recycled materials. Fortunately, these materials also have some of the highest market values among recyclables.

These materials are aluminum and steel cans, plastic bottles and jugs, glass bottles and jars, cardboard and mixed paper. To some it may seem obvious that we should recycle these items, yet the combined commercial and residential recycling rates prove that participation is not where it should be, with particularly low rates for metals, plastic and glass.

Even more concerning are the contributions that these recyclables make to the trash stream. Out of the total municipal solid waste landfilled in 2018, plastics made up more than 18 percent, while paper and cardboard made up nearly 12 percent.

Recycling reduces waste

Recycling reduces the amount of waste that goes to the landfill, therefore reducing the need to build more landfills. Baltimore County currently has one active landfill, and it is over 68 percent full. Therefore, it is important to understand that residents have the power to help prevent the need for a new landfill by simply recycling. When you recycle materials such as paper, cardboard, plastic bottles and aluminum cans, you make a difference in conserving our only active landfill.

Recycling saves money

The economic value of recycling is clear in the number of jobs it creates and its contribution to our nation’s economy. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2020 Recycling Economic Information (REI) Report, recycling activities in the U.S. account for 681,000 jobs and $5.5 billion in tax revenue. When you recycle, you help reduce the need to produce new materials. Recycling not only preserves natural resources and saves the County money because less goes to the landfill, but it also creates a source of income.

To help you see your empty recyclables as commodities and not trash, consider their actual cash value. Nationally, the average prices for some everyday recyclables are as follows (Resource Recycling, March 2021):

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), including water and soda bottles: 10 cents per pound
  • Natural high-density polyethylene (HDPE), including milk jugs and large water containers: 77 cents per pound
  • Color high-density polyethylene (HDPE), including detergent bottles: 23 cents per pound
  • Residential mixed paper: $48 per ton
  • Corrugated (cardboard) containers: $82 per ton
  • Sorted, baled steel cans: $230 per ton
  • Sorted, baled aluminum cans: 61 cents per pound
Photo of a bale of cans

It is important to recognize that a monthly price is just a “snapshot” of the price for a recyclable commodity. Prices for recyclables are highly volatile and depend on the supply and demand for the material. For example, while current natural HDPE prices are higher than aluminum prices, generally aluminum prices are much higher.

While Baltimore County prices vary from month to month against the averages, generally they are in the same range or higher than the national average.

Remember, we can avoid making recycling complicated by focusing on the basics. We should focus on those items that are the highest percentages going to landfill and the materials that generate the most revenue.

This April, for Earth Month 2021, make a commitment to get back to basics and focus on recycling the materials that matter most—aluminum and steel cans, plastic bottles and jugs, glass bottles and jars, cardboard and mixed paper. Doing so, and getting members of your household to do so as well, will make a positive impact on the success of our recycling program and preserve space in our landfill.

For more information on recycling in Baltimore County, visit the County’s website. For recycling and waste prevention tips and strategies, follow Clean Green Baltimore County on Facebook.