Why recycling companies aren't taking all the items they used to

For decades, Tom Medwig, of Mt. Lebanon, has been recycling the same way.

"Everything I could recycle, I would throw into the recycle bin," Medwig said. "Now, you can't do that. You have to be awfully careful what you're putting in there."

For thousands of other residents in the South Hills, Cranberry and other parts of western Pennsylvania, there's a new reality when it comes to recycling. Some items are being put back on the curb.

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"There are ways to do it," said Ed Vogel, the vice president of Vogel Holding, a company that handles recycling in Cranberry. "It's just not taking it out and the recycling fairy takes it away."

11 Investigates went to find out why this change is happening. We started with Vogel, who gave us a tour of his TC Recycling plant in Mars. The plant processes 130 tons of recycled material each day but can be slowed down by everyday items like plastic bags.

"We have to shut down a couple of times per day, and we have people that go in during the break with electric saws and cut the bags out," Vogel explained.

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Waste companies like Republic Services took it a step further, ending curbside pickup of items like glass bottles and plastic bags, which are considered contaminants.

"The secondary market in China was accepting the contamination," said Republic Municipal Services Manager John McGoran. "They're no longer accepting that contamination, so we had to find a way to change how the material is being processed."

Last year, China put strict regulations on the quality of recycled materials it would accept, dropping its recovered plastic shipments from the U.S. by 99 percent from 2017 to 2018. That has forced companies like Republic to change what they pick up, a change McGoran admits hasn't been easy for customers.

"When in doubt, put it in the recycle bin," McGoran said of the old mentality. "Now it's, 'When in doubt, put it in the garbage.'"

Some believe the change could turn into a positive. Univesity of Pittsburgh Sustainability Director Aurora Sharrard says people are more engaged than ever about protecting the environment. She believes the discussion surrounding recycling could put more emphasis on reducing and reusing items.

"People have been much more conscious about what they can put in the recycling bin and asking questions about where that is actually going and if it's being responsibly handled," Sharrard said. "Really asking questions about how else can we divert things from a landfill besides just recycling."

Those are changes that won't happen overnight for neighbors like Medwig. That means breaking habits that took years to develop.

"I try not to put the bottles in there. Sometimes I forget and I have to go in there and pull it out and throw it into the garbage," Medwig said. "Old habits, they don't die."