A new contract for Solid Waste Collection, Removal and Disposal, which includes recycling, went into effect on January 1, 2019 for the following 19 municipalities:

Township of Baldwin • Municipality of Bethel ParkBorough of BrentwoodBorough of Castle ShannonBorough of DormontTownship of ElizabethTownship of Findlay
Borough of Heidelberg • Borough of Jefferson HillsTownship of MoonMunicipality of Mt. Lebanon • Borough of Mt. Oliver • Peters TownshipBorough of Pleasant Hills
Township of ScottTownship of South FayetteTownship of South ParkTownship of Upper St. ClairBorough of Whitehall

(Although part of the contract, it should be noted that the Township of Baldwin, the Borough of Heidelberg and, the Borough of Mt. Oliver, due to their smaller populations, are not required by law to recycle.)

Developed through a joint bid released by SHACOG, this contract introduces some significant changes in the items that can be recycled and how that material is to be prepared for recycling. Because these changes depart from the customs and routines of the past many years, this section is intended to provide some background about how and why these changes were required and what the resident should do moving forward.


Mandatory recycling for municipalities with populations in excess of 10,000 people started in Pennsylvania with the adoption of Act 101 of 1988, formally known as the Municipal Waste Planning, Recycling and Waste Reduction Act. Most are unaware that there is no national recycling mandate, nor do all states require recycling. As well intentioned as the concept was - and still is - for those that require recycling, history has made it clear that neither recycling nor the materials markets involved were completely understood and that is having an impact today.

At the outset, recycling was perceived as simply keeping an item out of the landfill. In reality, that is called diversion. In simple terms, true recycling involves taking an item that can be recycled, putting it through some type of process, and producing a similar or like item. For example, an aluminum can is melted and the melted material is used to make a new can. Before that can is successfully recycled, however, it must be collected and sold to a company that is willing to melt and reuse the metal. The collection process has a cost and the price of the metal fluctuates in a very active market influenced by the simple economic forces of supply and demand. Sale of the recycled material by the collector has always been an essential but largely unrecognized part of recycling. Market availability and price fluctuation has also always had a direct impact on recycling and its true cost. If the markets are favorable, collection costs are readily offset; if market conditions are weak, collection costs must be paid for by the entity wanting to recycle.

In Pennsylvania, Act 101 mandates that three materials from a list of eight must be collected by municipalities that are obligated to have recycling programs. (Population dictates those that must recycle.) Those eight items are aluminum, steel and bimetallic cans, plastics, high-grade office paper, newsprint, corrugated paper, clear glass and colored glass. As long as three of those items are part of the mandated recycling program, the municipality is in compliance. This originally led to each item being placed in a separate container with collection by trucks that had separate bins for each of those items. Advances in technology allowed for the evolution of single stream recycling in which all items are commingled in one container and collected without separation in the collection vehicle. Those items are then mechanically separated at the recycling facility. After separation, the recycled material is then sold into the appropriate market.


Understanding the changes in recycling requires a focus on the markets in which the recyclables are sold. Most recycled material has some value but that value changes with market conditions. For example, in 2018 the price of cardboard, currently one of the more valuable materials, fluctuated by $100.00 per ton during the course of a year. When recycled material is deposited and processed at the recycling facility, known as the Material Recovery Facility, it is sorted, bundled and baled by product (e.g., plastic, paper, cardboard), and sold in markets that deal in those various recycled products. Although there have always been variables in the income from those markets, the industry was able to make educated calculations and forecast revenue from the sale of those recyclables with some predictability.

This revenue is a critical component in the calculations the contractor uses in preparing its bid for the competitive bid process the municipality is legally obligated to use to secure solid waste collection and disposal services, which includes recycling. A somewhat simplified examination of the components of the recycling portion of that bid reveals that the final number is generally the result of a three-step process. First, the contractor assesses its service cost (i.e., its cost to collect, transport and deposit the recyclables at the recycling facility). Second, based on the known historical composition of each ton of recyclables collected, it forecasts the revenue it anticipates receiving from the sale of those recyclables. Third, it subtracts that revenue from its service cost. The remainder then becomes the essence of its bid for recycling services. The bid price from the lowest responsible bidder will ultimately be the amount that will be paid by the municipality for recycling. Obviously, the more revenue a contractor anticipates from the sale of recyclables, the lower its bid price; the less revenue anticipated, the higher its bid price.

Generally unknown was that almost half of the collected recycled material generated in this country was sold to China. That surprising transaction history was supported by an influx of goods being shipped from overseas in containers that lacked sufficient American goods to fill them for their return voyage. Instead of returning empty containers, the shipping industry offered extremely discounted rates to transport the recycled material. China also wanted that material to support what in many areas was a thriving cottage industry. In addition to cheap labor making processing of the material to ultimate end users inexpensive, the imported material was also better sorted here so it was also easier to process there. It was the proverbial win-win situation: good prices were received in this country for the material exported and China was getting material it wanted. It also helped identify a major market for recyclables and forecast predictable prices for those recyclables.

Several years ago, however, China started to observe that a significant amount of the recycled material being exported to its shores was severely contaminated thereby creating dire environmental consequences for that country. More and more material could not be processed and was being disposed of improperly, many times along roadsides and waterways, especially in rural areas, thereby creating significant environmental issues. Unofficially the recycling industry accepted a one to five percent contamination rate as the norm; in reality, that rate often was approaching 25 percent. China finally determined that this unchecked excess was unacceptable, was little more than trash being exported to that country, and was resulting in the pollution of its countryside.

China also realized that its expanding economy and its growing middle class were generating recyclables in sufficient quantity that it did not need the imports. Starting a crackdown in 2013, finally, in 2017, under a policy it dubbed “National Sword,” China decided to impose an extremely strict limit on the contamination rate for imports: 0.5%. It also severely limited the type of recycled materials it would accept. These restrictions, imposed on recyclables being imported from anywhere in the world as of January 1, 2018, caused a massive ripple effect through the entire recycling industry. Although other markets were sought by the industry, e.g., Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, none were large enough to offset the loss of the Chinese market. Shortly thereafter, many of those other countries imposed their own limitations and restrictions on imported recyclables. Consequently, not only was the ability to export from the United States dramatically curtailed, the glut of material caused the revenue stream to be eviscerated. Pictures document that everything from local recycling facilities to ports are stockpiled to their limits with material searching for a market.

With such restrictions being imposed on the recycling industry and its revenue stream under siege, when the new bid for solid waste collection and disposal, including recyclables, was released to secure a new contract, significant changes were incorporated. Those changes became effective on January 1, 2019.


There are two types of contamination: “dirty stuff” and “wrong stuff.” Dirty stuff is just that: material that is not clean such as a jelly jar with residue remaining inside. Wrong stuff is material that is not recyclable, such as plastic toys, bicycle chains, garden hoses, intermingled with legitimate recyclables.


“Dirty stuff” containing debris and food residue severely reduces the market value of the item. Even water inside a container can precipitate the development of mold which, in turn, can contaminate an entire bale of plastic thereby reducing the value of that bale to zero. “Wrong stuff” requires extras processing to remove it from the recycling stream. Failure to remove it also impacts the value of the bundled material. If too much of the “wrong stuff” remains, the value of the bale can also be reduced to zero. Anything without market value ends up in the landfill.

Another problem is that the “wrong stuff” can cause problems during the sorting process. Recyclables are collected in what is known as a “single stream process.” That means all collected items are commingled and deposited as a mass on a receiving pad at the recycling facility. The material is then placed on a conveyor and fed into a large sorting machine that separates the items by type. Things like plastic bags, chains and hoses jam the gears forcing a shutdown. Broken glass contaminates otherwise good cardboard. All of this has a cost. Jammed machines have to be cleared manually. Some industry commentary has indicated that the sorting machines are idled one hour on average out of every eight-hour shift to clear these jams. Lost productivity is an expense. Cardboard, one of the more valuable recyclables, can have its value reduced to zero when impregnated with glass, thereby negatively impacting the revenue stream.

Some have suggested early sorting when the material is deposited on the conveyor belt. A viable partial solution, manpower also has a cost. That translates into higher processing cost and less revenue.

Ironically, items included in the recycling stream that cannot be recycled ultimately end up in the landfill. The municipality is therefore paying a premium for a service that is actually not being received.

  • Clean and Dry Aluminum Cans
  • Tin Cans
  • Plastic Type 1 PET and Type 2 HDPE
  • Newspaper
  • Mixed Paper
  • Corrugated Cardboard
  • Glass of any type
  • Film such as Plastic Bags or Plastic Wrap of any type
  • Plastics Type 3 through and including Type 7
  • Black PET Trays or Food Trays of any type
  • Plastic Items such as, but not limited to, Flower Pots, Vinyl Siding, Records or VCR Tapes
  • Metal Foil
  • Non-Can items such as Lawnmower Blades, Dog Chains, Car Motors and Brake Pads
  • Styrofoam
  • Rubber Products such as Hoses, Tires and Balls


  • Carefully sort and properly identify what can and cannot be recycled. Placing only the recyclables listed above in the recycling container is essential.
  • Individually place recyclables in the recycling container. Do not first bundle them in a plastic bag and then put the bag in the recycling container. The plastic bag is considered to be “film” and therefore a contaminant which contaminates the entire container.
  • Cardboard and paperboard boxes should be flattened before being placed in the recycling container.
  • For plastic bottles, jugs and jars, use the following procedure: Empty, Clean and Dry.
  • Watch for contaminants. Anything that has come into contact with food is considered to be contaminated and should be disposed of as trash. Examples are paperboard containers from fast food with cheese or condiment residue adhering to the side and grease-stained cardboard pizza boxes.
  • Follow the shorthand guide to recycling: When in doubt, throw it out.
  • Make sure the “wrong stuff” is not accidentally placed in the recycling bin.


As a minimum, because the list of items that can be recycled has changed significantly and many former items are no longer recyclable, simply including all of the items you used to recycle will automatically result in the load received at the recycling facility being declared to be contaminated. In addition, if your screening of items is not thorough and “dirty stuff” is attempted to be recycled, those items will also result in the load received at the recycling facility being declared to be contaminated. Consequently, as well intentioned as the desire to recycle may be, not following the rules will result in both contamination and problems for you and the municipality.

Changing old recycling habits and eliminating contamination is so important that during the current calendar year (2019) the contractor may examine the contents of your recycling container prior to collection. Although the contents will be collected, if contamination is present, a notice may be attached to that container identifying the nature of the contamination and directing you how to contact the contractor and the municipality for instructions on how to correct the problem. In the second through fifth calendar years (2020-2023), contaminated contents will not be collected and the same notice will be left for you. After you correct the problem, you will then have to make special arrangements for collection.


Contaminated loads received at the recycling facility will be rejected and penalties will be levied against, and additional costs will be incurred by, the contractor. Commencing in 2020, the contractor can surcharge the municipality $150.00 for each load of contaminated material. The contractor will also then be obligated to re-collect and remove the contaminated material from the recycling facility. Unfortunately, that contaminated load will simply be transported to the landfill. As a result, the premium paid for recycling will be wasted and additional expense will be incurred by the municipality. Given the number of loads hauled to the recycling facility each year, lack of cooperation from the residents resulting in excessive contamination could cost the municipality thousands of dollars above the anticipated annual cost for solid waste collection and disposal and ultimately add to your taxes or the fee you pay for garbage.

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