Recycling markets are in a very tough spot right now. While some individuals and businesses may not know most have felt the strain or have at least heard the buzz.
The bulk of the issues have been an issue for a really long time it's just gotten a lot worse. It's kind of like when your child tries to go on a hunger strike and will only eat dessert. You can let it go and hope for it to pass, with the likelihood of it spreading to your other children, or you can put an end to it (or at least put a plan in place to slowly put an end to it). In the recycling industry we need a plan. My plan starts with education by explaining what I believe the real issues are.
1. Contamination is real and the absolute HUGEST issue. Some recycling rules can be extremely confusing; items that are accepted, preferred, and completely fine in one program can cause big issues for another. Other times (lots of times) there are items that are clearly NOT recyclable that are carelessly placed in the recycling bin. No one reasonably thought that dirty diaper could be recycled, the planter (full of dirt and a plant) could be destined for something new, or the concrete block would an item to be reused at the recycling facility. The choices that these people made by throwing it in the recycling bin anyway are the careless choices that are currently crippling our industry. I have always stayed clear of directly saying this but ... if you are going to throw trash in your recycling it's better you not recycle at all. GASP!?! I'm not talking the occasional pizza box with a slight grease outline or a yogurt container that may or may not be accepted in your program. Yes, these can cause contamination issues but they are a tiny fraction of the issues we currently face.
Please check out our MRF's most UNwanted list:
This list above covers most common offenders that cause processing issues but this list does not include all of the garbage we receive daily. The below items did not make the list because we try to presume that people just wouldn't purposely place this stuff in the bin. In an effort to leave nothing opened to interpretation the following items are NOT EVER able to be recycled (at a standard recycling facility) and should NEVER be placed in your recycling bin or dropped at a collection center:
1. Diapers in any form
2. Animal remains
3. Medical waste (used bandages, syringes, iv bags, etc.)
4. Animal waste
5. Construction debris (drywall, wires, fixtures, concrete, blacktop, etc.)
6. Full containers (cans or bottles that have not been emptied)
7. Clothing - soiled or otherwise (take it to goodwill, give it away, or throw it away)
8. Lawn-care items (grass, leaves, dirt, branches, tree stumps)
9. Extremely wet material (soiled, soupy, and mushy)
Our industry is hurting. Companies who have intentions of only creating superior recycled feed stock to be used for the creation of a new product can only watch helplessly as their quality continues to fall, just as external pressure is requiring cleaner material then ever. You can add more staff, you can turn down the speed of the equipment and try to comb through the "garbage" more closely only to struggle to find outlets that will purchase your material (or for some products not charge you to take it). Recyclers can only do that for so long before they will cease to exist. In order to be a business that is not only environmentally responsible but also profitable (so that you can continue to pay your staff and bills) you need to find a middle ground. We need every person's assistance and we have been asking for it for quite a while now.
2. Garbage costs and tightening of landfill availability. Recycling facilities (especially those who have no landfill ties or affiliations) pay to get rid of every ton of garbage that is thrown in the recycling bins. Not only does it now require more people, for a longer time, to sort the contaminated material (causing them to lose money) but it also means shelling out the tonnage charges required to throw away the garbage that should never have been received while contaminating good recyclable material along the away (causing it to also turn to garbage). As landfill availability becomes scarce the price per ton increases.
We all talk about recycling being the responsible thing to do and so important for the future of our planet and children. Almost everyone talks a good game when we do outreach events and most claim to know about and actively recycle in their home (typically this is feedback from children who tend to be pretty honest). So where is the gap?
There are certainly some processors who may have tried to slip contaminated recyclables into other countries but I'd like to think that was the exception. Additionally, if the customer received the material and it was in fact garbage instead of the product they expected wouldn't they reject the material or at least ensure that loads like that would not be received again? Since countries have ended importing recyclables or reduced the allowable contamination rates to extremely tight tolerances (only in a time when contamination is at its peak) moving material is tough. Recyclers are thrilled with the idea of building and strengthening domestic markets (with realistic contamination tolerances) but that will require a domestic push for manufacturing and a domestic push for quality material specifically made from recycled content.
4. Supply and Demand. Since the current supply far outweighs the current demand and the large consumer is no longer consuming any domestic market that required the material is taking advantage of the sale price. Instead of paying prior averages (at which they could still make money) they've decided to make more money at the expense of the recycling industry. Recycling collection occurs whether the markets are good or bad. Storage space is always limited and recovery facilities are presented with the terrible choices of selling at a loss, paying to get rid of the material, or stop receiving it. Many recyclers have legal and binding contracts or as an effort to keep their good name they refuse to stop receiving.
5. Angry mother-nature. Sometimes luck just isn't on your side. In addition to the above contamination issues our current weather in the Northeast has been super yucky and has just increased problems with contamination. We have had huge amounts of rain and flooding. When people are trying to keep their homes dry & safe they tend not to worry about keeping their recyclables safe & dry. A large majority of the material that we are processing daily is wet, some extremely wet. When collecting single stream (the most common method of collection) broken glass, gets stuck to wet paper and inside containers. Clumpy, wet material is more difficult to process, sort, and becomes stinky and moldy (not a great predictor of good material when it arrives to the manufacturer). Other then trying to keep recycling clean and dry I haven't found a way to control the weather just yet or we'd be shipping some of our rain to areas who need it immediately.
In my opinion these are the top 5 reasons that recycling is currently in crisis. The good news is that the largest issue facing us is controlled by every single person recycling. If we resolve that number one issue most others will slowly resolve themselves.