While recycling has continually evolved over the last several decades, the industry is currently at a crossroads, according to industry officials.
Waste and recycling haulers, municipalities and other stakeholders nationwide are dealing with dramatic changes in recycling commodities markets due in part to China’s recent increased restrictions and are fighting against contaminated recycling streams from consumers recycling improperly.
As recycling programs increased in popularity in the United States in the early 2000s and into the 2010s, the market’s reliance on China as an export market for purchasing recyclable material skyrocketed.
Don Johnson, system development manager for Kimble Companies, said that by 2013, nearly 40 percent of the mixed paper and plastic recyclables collected in the United States were exported to China. In 2013, China implemented its “Green Fence” policy, which increased regulations on recyclable imports, and in 2018 China adopted the National Sword policy, which mandated that recyclables must have only 1 percent contamination or less to be accepted, Mr. Johnson said.
Contamination refers to loads that have non-recyclable items mixed in with recyclables or when recyclable items are put in the wrong bin.
“That’s next to impossible to do,” Mr. Johnson said of the 1 percent standard. “So what they’re saying is they don’t want any more of the material from the United States or Europe.”
Rumpke Waste and Recycling Director Steve Sargent said China had previously announced restrictions that never came to fruition, but the country has followed through with the National Sword policy.
“When this was announced, our industry had heard other announcements in the past. We weren’t sure this was for real, but it is,” he said. “They have now in 2018 basically banned all the mixed paper shipments that we used to make there. They are making a stringent effort to reduce the imports, especially from the United States.”
Mr. Johnson said even though the waste haulers in Ohio, including Kimble, Rumpke, Waste Management and Republic, send most of their mixed paper and plastics to businesses within the Midwest and were not reliant on exporting to China, states on the east and west coasts relied heavily on China’s market and are now searching for places to send their recyclables. This has led to a dramatic increase in supply in domestic markets and lower prices across the industry for those selling recyclables.
“(Collector industry received) about $70 a ton for their mixed paper by March of 2018,” Mr. Johnson said. “Prices have just dropped dramatically, terribly, and in March (of 2019) we were actually paying to get rid of our mixed cardboard instead of getting a return. That’s an $80 swing right there. It’s a tough situation right now.”
Mr. Sargent said Rumpke has always had a commitment to export less than 2 percent of its recyclables and finds most of its markets within a 300 mile radius of its collection areas. Many haulers nationwide, however, are dealing with challenges in transporting materials to markets, he said.
“In Lexington, Kentucky, they’re having trouble removing their paper so they’ve now removed paper from their collection program. So they have a movement problem,” Mr. Sargent said. “Can your recycling center sell or move the material that you collect and process?”
Mr. Sargent has been in the recycling business for almost 40 years and said he expects the industry to bounce back as more domestic markets open and the challenges of high supply, low prices and transportation are dealt with.
“Our company feels strongly about this that we’re going to have to go through this period of time that we’re going through to give these domestic markets time to develop and come online and create new demand for our domestic recycling programs,” he said. “We’ve got to change the way we’re doing business and we’re going to have to develop and be more dependent on our domestic markets and that process is happening.”
Mr. Johnson said he is also confident that domestic businesses will continue to grow to accept recyclables so that communities that relied on China on the nation’s coasts can go back to successfully recycling rather than having materials stored up in warehouses or even in some cases eventually taken to landfills.
“It’s going to take some time because it’s very expensive to build plants and plastic plants and things of that nature. It will take time to get infrastructure in place to pick up the volume that had been going to China,” he said. “In any industry, when there’s an opportunity out there, we’re hopeful people will go out and do their research and make the investment to build the process and facilities to make the material.”
Problem of wish-cycling
In addition to the challenges the recycling industry markets face, haulers and solid waste districts are fighting against contamination at the consumer level, whether a community has curbside recycling or takes its recyclables to a nearby recycling drop-off center.
According to Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District Executive Director Diane Bickett, there are five main categories of recycling that should be placed in curbside recycling: aluminum cans; paper cartons for food and beverages like cream, broth and juice; glass bottles and jars; paper and cardboard and plastic bottles and jugs used for beverages, detergent, shampoo and more. Recycling categories are similar in Geauga County, although drop-off recycling centers no longer accept glass.
Recycling services are not consistent throughout Northeast Ohio. Some communities have curbside recycling with pickups at each house while others have centers to where residents drive and drop off items that can be recycled.
Republic Services Recycling Coordinator Lisa Beursken said many curbside customers engage in “wish-cycling,” where they throw things they think might be recyclable in their bins and hope that haulers can do something with them. Other customers simply use the recycling bin as a second trash bin, leading to high levels of contamination, she said.
“This is plastic, metal, they’ll figure it out,” she said of customers’ thinking when putting wire hangers, hoses, car parts, lawnmower blades and other non-recyclable materials in their bins. “Unfortunately, we can’t figure out what to do with it. Know what to throw, know what’s in your program,” she advised.
Mr. Sargent said while consumers’ bad habits contribute greatly to contamination, the recycling industry accepted higher levels of contamination due to such high demand before China closed its doors to mixed paper and plastics.
“So when there was more demand, then you could ship more material and sometimes those quality standards weren’t adhered to,” he said. “Now, when China backs out of the market and we’ve lost that much of a marketplace, then these quality standards have come into play and they have accelerated, so we now must meet very stringent requirements in our materials and that’s where we find ourselves today.”
Rumpke East Area Communications Manager Gayane Makaryan said customers don’t realize that recycled materials are commodities that must have a viable market that can easily and affordably use the materials.
“Just because it has that triangle doesn’t mean it’s necessarily recyclable. For example, those plastic clam shells that berries and kiwis and produce come in at the grocery stores, those are not necessarily recyclable because there’s really not an end user for it,” she said. “The difference is the plastic we can recycle, bottles and drums, that’s low mold plastic, so it’s got a different melting point. It’s really about finding an end user and finding a company that can repurpose that material.”
Ms. Makaryan said plastic bags and batteries are especially dangerous contaminants, as they can cause major damage to the machinery at materials recovery facilities (known as MRFs) where recycled materials are processed and baled before being shipped to end-users.
“Plastic bags in our MRFs will end up getting caught in the wheels of the machines and then that slows down the process or we have to shut down the machine because plastic bags get caught,” she said. “I had two fires in our recycling facility within 24 hours from batteries because folks think they can recycle them. Batteries need proper disposal and we encourage everyone to check with solid waste districts for different plans and different drop offs. You can’t throw them away or in recycling.”
Even when putting the correct recyclable items into bins or at drop off centers, residents need to make sure their items are clean, Ms. Makaryan said. Putting in a jar of peanut butter or pasta sauce that has not been rinsed out leads to food waste contamination. Ms. Bickett said it is helpful to remember that recyclables turn into products.
“Recyclables are commodities like everything else,” Ms. Bickett said. “They need to be clean. You wouldn’t want to buy a dirty piece of something. They’re commodities, not garbage.”
Mr. Johnson said consumers have gotten into bad habits of not being conscious of what should and should not go into their recycling bins. Waste haulers, municipalities and solid waste districts are all working to better educate citizens on best practices in curbside and drop off recycling, he said.
“Go on the website of your community or service provider and see what should be put into the receptacle. Keep contaminants out. Contaminants are tremendously high on curbside programs,” he said. “Solid waste districts across Northeast Ohio that I deal with are working very, very hard as well as community organizations to educate and promote quality recycling, as are our employees at Kimble and competitors.
“We’re all working hard to get contamination rates down. In marketing the material in the U.S., they don’t want contamination either.”
Ms. Bickett said the solid waste district seeks to educate on how to recycle properly at home; alert residents to specific items like computers, scrap metal, shredded paper and clothing that can be recycled outside of the curbside programs and promote areas where consumers can reduce their overall consumption of products. The district’s website, www.cuyahogarecycles.org, provides a wide array of information including a breakdown by community in Cuyahoga County.