How Cities Are Rethinking (and Saving) Recycling

September 25, 2018 - (4 min read)

The city of Kirkwood, Missouri, recently announced that it would continue curbside recycling for residents.

This may not seem like big news, but the decision comes after a month of speculation that the service would need to be terminated — even as Mayor Tim Griffin committed to do “everything we can to save our curbside recycling program.” Although ending the program completely would be a relatively radical step, there is a significant risk that other cities might do just that.

Over the last several decades, increased rates of recycling have become one of the most widespread success stories in conservation and sustainability. Recycling is a simple, participatory way for any household to make a difference, and today residents and businesses recycle or compost roughly 34 percent of all waste that is generated nationwide (or about 91 million tons). Cities are at the center of this system, working in concert with haulers and processors to help collect materials from residents and businesses.

Revised Infographic

The benefits of recycling go far beyond a reduction in land and water pollution. Recycling diverts material away from roughly 2,000 landfills in the U.S. that are close to full capacity, and the industry employs more than 750,000 middle-class workers who receive a total of $36 billion in wages. This sector also generates $6.7 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues per year.

But the dirty secret of the industry is that, for decades, it has depended on high demand from China to purchase recyclables from the rest of the world. With China’s low wages, poor working conditions and manufacturing industries that desperately needed paper, plastic and metal as raw materials, this arrangement supported relatively healthy markets for key recyclable commodities in the U.S.

However, as the U.S. prospered, the industry was leading to negative environmental outcomes in China. So now, China is making big moves to clean up its environment. A new set of regulations, collectively referred to as the “National Sword” policy, has dramatically limited the material the country is willing to accept. This has caused markets for several commodities to crash, leading to problems that have been thoroughly documented by major outlets such as USA Today, The Guardian and NPR.


Our current markets are threatened, but these new policies present an opportunity for cities to build local, resilient waste management systems.

Today, NLC launched a guide, “Rethinking Recycling,” to examine how some cities have started to respond to the issue, and offer a series of recommendations that can help local leaders prepare for upcoming changes. The report marks the beginning of a larger effort to improve the sustainability of waste management in America’s cities. Many cities contract out to recycling collection services, and it’s rare to look under the hood, but that is exactly what’s needed.

Cities should begin by conducting an economic analysis of their current operations in light of the commodity crashes, and ask the following questions: What are the local revenue sources and tipping fees? Who are the contractors? How are those contractors coping with the new markets?


Once cities have this basic information, options range from minor tweaks to the system to more significant investments. Waste management, particularly for residential collection, depends on clear and consistent expectations, so none of these changes should be taken lightly. Options highlighted in the report include:

  1. Work with contractors to adjust payment and performance.
  2. Ensure fees and rates being collected reflect current costs.
  3. Evaluate local policies and economic incentives to match your waste management goals.
  4. Explore new local and unconventional markets to sell recyclables.
  5. Reconsider what is allowed in different waste and recycling streams.
  6. Examine asset ownership and consider infrastructure investments.

Ultimately, cities should feel empowered by these changes. Waste should not be a burden that cities must manage, but rather a valuable resource to promote local industry, improve sustainability and develop economies based on products that are intended for reuse.

Other resources and educational opportunities will be available during NLC’s City Summit conference in November. And if you’re a city leader weighing changes in your own system, we encourage you to email us and share your story.


Cooper Martin SCI PicAbout the Author: Cooper Martin is the program director of the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities.





About the Author: Corinne Rico is a Senior Consultant with GBB, an award-winning international solid waste management consulting firm that helps communities do better things with waste. At GBB, Corinne advances sustainable waste management and resource recovery through alternative streams including recycling, composting, and circular economy initiatives. Corinne is a former fellow with the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities.