When cities launched recycling programs in the 1980s and 1990s, the theory was that the revenue from the recovered materials would offset the costs of collecting and separating the waste, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Kevin Miller, recycling manager for the city of Napa, Calif., said “we get back about 20%” of the costs of collecting, sorting and shipping materials.

Miller and environmental advocates point out that recycling has other economic benefits, such as reducing the use and cost of landfills and reducing the need for harvesting virgin materials.

But the burden of paying for it falls on cities — or residents who pay for the trash service — because the U.S. has not followed the path of many European countries of requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for the disposal or recovery of their products and packaging.

For example, syringes are a major hazard for workers sorting recyclables on the conveyor belts at facilities around the country, said Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the National Stewardship Action Council. But she said in Ontario, Canada, prescriptions for injections come with a return package. “When you get a needle prescription, they hand you a safe-return container,” she said. When the syringes are empty, “you bring back your full container of needles (to the pharmacy), they put it in the back in a bin” and a specialty waste contractor picks them up for proper disposal.

Short of take-back programs like that, American cities are taking a variety of steps to address the costs of maintaining their recycling programs. Working with Waste Management, the city of Berwyn, Ill., launched an education program at the beginning of April called “Recycle Often, Recycle Right,” which begins with fliers and outreach efforts to educate residents on what should and should not go in their recycling carts. By the end of the month, collectors will refuse to pick up carts that are filled with trash or other contaminants.

“It’s all about education,” said Assistant City Administrator Ruth Volbre. “People are willing to go ahead with it, they just need the information.”

Des Moines has begun “curbside audits,” and recycling bins filled with non-recyclable items will not be picked up. “We’ve had two years in a row of record amounts of recyclables,” Public Works Director Jonathan Gano told the city council, according to The Des Monies Register. “But we have record amounts of trash going into the recycling bins.”

This is problem nationwide, Biderman said. “Ten or 15 years ago, to increase recycling rates, we wanted to make it it as easy as possible for Americans to recycle so we told them to put it one big bin,” he said. So people are putting everything they think could — or should — be recycled into the bins. “We have a lot of aspirational recyclers,” Biderman said. “Contamination rates at recycling facilities have increased significantly over the past five years.”

Harrison said her group worked with Lowell, Mass., to send people into the streets to check recycling bins and leave “Oops” tags for residents to explain what materials they should not have dropped there.

But in some places, education is not enough, and local officials are raising fees to offset the reduced value of recovered commodities. Ocala, Fla., approved a rate increase for its recycling program last month and Boulder City, Nev., has begun taking steps that could result in a fee increase there as well. Sioux Falls, S.D. raised hauling fees largely to cover the cost of handling glass, and Pendelton, Ore., raised its garbage fees in part because recycling revenues have dropped.

But it is not all bad news in the industry, Napa’s Miller said. The growth of online shopping has generated an explosion of cardboard packaging coming into the recycling stream. “there is more corrugated cardboard in the system than ever before,” he said, which is a valuable and readily recyclable product — as long as it is not contaminated in a recycling bin by a dirty diaper or broken bottle.