Rethinking Recycling: Changing Global Markets Bring Local Challenges

Recycling is long ingrained in the daily lives of Loudouners, where it has been a locally mandated activity for three decades. But decisions from the Far East could have significant impacts to the recycling industry locally, and industry professionals are warning that changes should be made about what goes in your collection bin.

The upheaval began in earnest last year, when China announced it would limit the types of recyclables it would purchase from other countries. It expanded the ban this summer to include even more recyclable materials. The action has significant implications internationally and the change is starting to have a trickle-down effect to local markets. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries pegs the amount of U.S. scrap commodity exports to China in 2017 at 31 percent.

In Loudoun, it’s something government leaders are closely watching. Tony Hayes, recycling specialist with Loudoun County government, said he is already hearing from the county’s recycling contractor that they are facing higher costs because of the limitations on what can be exported to China, as well as new limits on the types of material that is accepted for processing.

“A lot of the material from the U.S. was going to China. Now all these different companies that process and market [recyclables] have to scramble to find other markets outside of China. In doing that, the price of recyclable commodities dipped quite a bit over the years,” he said. “We’re paying like $25,000 more this year than last year to accommodate our contractor’s woes with all those issues.”

While $25,000 in the county’s $1 billion-plus budget is a relative drop in the bucket, smaller localities are bracing for a bigger budget impact.

Renee LaFollette, director of Leesburg’s Public Works and Capital Projects Management, said she is already anticipating that, less than a year into the town’s new trash and recycling contract, the per-ton cost of recycling could double by this time next year, if not sooner.

Republic Services is the contractor responsible for collecting recyclables from the eight different recycling centers in the county. Its crews haul the material, sort it, and market it for recycling. According to Hayes, most of the recyclable material collected in Loudoun stays in the U.S. and goes to domestic recycling markets.

“There’s a very healthy, robust market for recyclable commodities in the U.S.,” Hayes said, “but there was also a heavy reliance on foreign markets.”

Fluctuating recycling markets is nothing new—“all markets are that way,” Hayes noted. Mixed paper—such as newspaper, mail and cereal boxes—currently is taking the heaviest hit, dropping to only $2 per ton in value on current recycling markets, he said. Mixed paper also happens to be the largest component of what’s collected in the county’s recycling centers. Recyclable glass is also a challenged market. Its weight makes it heavy to transport and the fact that there are no local markets to recycle glass means high transportation costs. The processing costs are also high, partly because of the likelihood of glass breaking when mixed with other materials. For those reasons, Arlington County and other jurisdictions no longer except glass as part of their recycling programs.

Clean white paper, on the other hand, is very high in value right now, and Hayes said he sees the value of plastics and jugs continuing to increase.

Dan Dumas, general manager for Republic Services’ north and central Virginia markets, said the company is focusing on what items are still very marketable right now. Newspapers, cardboard boxes, aluminum cans and plastic milk gallons are just a few of the “hot” items on the recycling markets.

“We need to get more of that, and to find a way to work through the other products,” he said.

And that’s something consumers can help with. When you go to the store to buy beer for a party, pick the 12 pack of cans rather than glass bottles, Dumas said as an example. Try to eliminate personal use of single-use plastics, like drinking straws or bags, he added.

“The recycling we knew growing up is not the same,” Dumas said.

On the financial side, Dumas said the increased processing costs will be passed on to the generators of the recyclable materials—consumers.
“And that’s really how it should be,” he says.

Republic Services is already looking at potential fee increases to cover the higher cost of processing recyclables in the current market. But if consumers end up paying more on the recycling side of operations, Dumas said the focus can shift to reduce the amount of trash generated, and in turn see those costs go down.

The Virginia government can also help by tweaking a few state laws, Dumas said. The state Department of Environmental Quality currently requires cities, towns and counties to have an established recycling program that meets or exceeds a goal of 25 percent of its municipal solid waste generation. Instead, the state could mandate diversion rates on volume or percentage of total waste.

Both Hayes and Dumas said that a little bit of public education, or re-education, can go a long way in dealing with changes to the recycling market.

“It is very important that we put the right materials in the recycling bin and keep waste out of recycling as much as possible,” Hayes said. “That will go a long way to keeping our programs moving forward without much change.”

The little things can make a big difference. For example, keeping plastic bags out of recycling bins can save both time and money in the long run. The plastic bags get caught in recycling sorting and processing machines, causing the machines to have to be shut down to cut out the bags.

“If we do those simple things … it will keep costs down in the long run,” Hayes said.

Dumas said people have a “moral obligation” to leave the planet in better shape for the next generation, so that is the compass by which consumers should be led.

“I don’t think it’s the end of recycling by any means,” Hayes said. “We just have to shift.”


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