2019 Update on Recycling (from Waste Management)
Brief overview of Recycling … Three things will determine if something is recyclable: if we are able to collect it; if it can it be processed; and, if there is a market for the item.
The best way to recycle is to put all the recyclables in the same container, called “single stream recycling.” It makes recycling easier for the average person and will increase the household participation rate dramatically. The Town has adopted this “single stream” approach, and here is what that picture currently looks like. We have approximately a 25-35% contamination rate on average throughout Colorado, which brings us to some of the challenges we face, we are paying top dollar to process materials in your single stream that still end up in a landfill.
The single stream system of collection and processing is the most effective way to access recycling materials, but it has a few limitations. Chief among these is that it lends itself to contamination - things which do not belong in the recycling container. These are items which, may be recyclable on their own, but which cannot be processed as single stream, such as green waste or items made from hard plastic, or items which are not recyclable at all, such as trash.
Contamination is defined as any material that ends up in a recycling container that is NOT on the list of acceptable items. It is a combination of people not knowing what goes in a single stream container, and people using their recycling cart as a second trash can.
Here are the top 3 biggest contaminators we see today:
- Plastic Bags and Plastic Film -
- Food contaminated waste -
- And, items containing liquid -
Plastic bags and film can shut down the equipment used to process recycling materials, so we urge residents not to bag their recycling items. Food and liquids can contaminate surrounding materials, rendering them nonviable recycling products.
Here is the exclusive list of what does belong in the Recycling Container:
Cardboard (OCC) & Paperboard (e.g. cereal boxes)
Mixed Paper products (e.g. newspaper, writing paper, magazines, junk mail)
Plastic Bottles & Containers (Clean, Empty & Dry)
All Metal Bottles & Cans (Steel & Aluminum)
Nothing else can be processed at the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). At our local MRF; the materials will be sorted, baled and shipped to factories that will turn them into new products. Manufacturers will then use this recycling material in lieu of virgin materials. So, recycling has a definite commodity value, and as such, are subject to commodity market pressures. When supply is greater than demand, two things are sure to happen; commodity value will decrease and the insistence on purity (higher quality materials) will increase.
What’s happening in the Recycling Industry… In the past 5 years we have seen a decline in the commodity value of recycling materials, and that decline has accelerated recently; just since the first of the year we have seen a 50% decline in value, and the demand for a higher quality product is at an all-time high. This has forced MRF’s globally to slow their operations down, and double the size of their sort staff (so more sorting can take place), thereby increasing dramatically the cost of processing.
- Low energy prices are affecting commodity prices. For example, it is less expensive for plastic product manufacturers to use virgin resin than post-consumer resin.
- There is a current glut on metals, depressing their pricing worldwide.
- The strong U.S. dollar makes our commodities more expensive on the global market.
- Domestically, we have seen paper mill factories begin a consolidation process, which has resulted in a limiting of the number of domestic buyers.
- The economic growth in China (our largest export partner) has slowed. Demand for recycled feedstock has slowed as their economic growth has slowed from 12-14% to 4-6%.
- Over the past several years, China has also built a network to capture more internal material for recycling, so they are much less dependent on imports.
- China has imposed severe restrictions on the importation of recycling commodities.
What does this mean … No one knows for sure when the recycling processing costs are going to settle, but we believe we are headed in the right direction to have some stabilization occur. We do feel this will take some time, and perhaps longer before the China market is totally replaced. In the mean time we know there will be some recycling disposal pricing changes which will have to be passed on through recycling rates. We should have a much clearer picture by the 4th quarter of this year. Each month I provide some recycling reports to City staff, along with a report on processing costs, and will continue these updates.
Summary… Here is what we believe the picture is going to look like for the foreseeable future, as the “new normal” for the recycling industry:
- We are going to see stricter contamination limits being demanded by buyers;
- 30% of the recycling market is gone with the new standards imposed by China, so a severe tightening of the markets will take place in the short and mid-term;
- Also in the short to mid-term, recycling processing costs will continue to rise, but we will begin to see these costs slow, as our anti-contamination efforts bear fruit;
- Our efforts to develop new domestic and overseas markets to replace the 30% we lost will continue, with success, but this will take some time to fulfill;
- A concerted campaign to clean up the recycling stream will continue, and cooperation from residents will be requested;
- And in terms of additional recycling disposal costs, which we will address this fall, as the picture becomes clearer.
Recommendations… Although processing costs are expected to escalate in the near term, we believe it is reasonable to ask our communities to stay the course, as we feel we will see this escalation slow. We suggest to our communities they resist the impulse to dismantle the recycling infrastructure which has been painstakingly established, understanding that each community must make their own decisions based on the best information they have, and that we can provide.