The Economics of Recycling: Why Some Items are Accepted and Others are Not

posted 11/30/2016

Trying to figure out if something is recyclable can get a little confusing. Plastics with twist off lids are recyclable, but berry containers are not? Aluminum cans can be tossed into the Curb It! cart, but aluminum foil and pans need to stay out? What or who exactly sets these guidelines, and why is it different everywhere you go? Believe it or not, you can look to the economy for the answer...

There are two factors that determine if something is accepted in your Curb It! cart:

  1. It can be sorted at the local recycling facility, where people and machines separate the accepted from the unaccepted.
  2. It can be sold for a profit. This means, a manufacturer is in demand for the material and has the ability to turn it into something new.

The plastic, cardboard, paper and metal you recycle are sorted and baled with like items, and then sold to various companies within many industries. Each commodity has a different value, thus sold for different prices by the ton. Current prices range from as high as $1,200/ton for aluminum to as low as $35/ton for glass.

Recycling facilities can’t feasibly sort every type of material, so they must be selective and accept those that are the most common with the greatest demand for resale and profit.  Thus, to ensure a sustainable recycling program, common items with a high price per ton tend to make it on the community’s recycling list, and recycling sorting centers find a way to separate it from the other material.

A major factor in determining the selling price of recycled material is the contamination level of the bale. When the wrong items get in a bale, the value of the entire bale diminishes considerably. The good news is:  YOU can stop the contamination!  Only put accepted Curb It! items in your curbside recycling cart.

Also remember, buying products made from recycled items encourages the recycling market and has the potential to drive up the prices of the recycled material, making the market more competitive! So always check an item’s label to see if it’s made out of a recycled material (sometimes referred to as post-consumer product).

Are you, or do you know a high school teacher who would like to have Metro Waste Authority come to your classroom to teach about the economics of recycling? Book the program Wasteonomics: The Economics of Waste by emailing!