Recycling down in the dumps

The Oneida Daily Dispatch (Oneida, NY) - - Front Page - By Mary Esch

Amer­ica’s recycling in­dus­try is in the dumps.

A crash in the global mar­ket for re­cy­clables is forc­ing com­mu­ni­ties to make hard choices about whether they can af­ford to keep recycling or should sim­ply send all those bot­tles, cans and plas­tic con­tain­ers to the land­fill.

Moun­tains of pa­per have piled up at sort­ing cen­ters, worth­less. Cities and towns that once made money on re­cy­clables are in­stead pay­ing high fees to pro­cess­ing plants to take them. Some fi­nan­cially strapped recycling pro­ces­sors have shut down en­tirely, leav­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties with no choice but to dump or in­cin­er­ate their re­cy­clables.

“There’s no mar­ket. We’re pay­ing to get rid of it,” says Ben Har­vey, pres­i­dent of EL Har­vey & Sons, which han­dles re­cy­clables from about 30 com­mu­ni­ties at its sort­ing fa­cil­ity in West­bor­ough, Mass­a­chu­setts. “Seventy-five per­cent of what goes through our

plant is worth noth­ing to neg­a­tive num­bers now.”

It all stems from a pol­icy shift by China, long the world’s lead­ing re­cy­clables buyer. At the be­gin­ning of the year it en­acted an an­tipol­lu­tion pro­gram that closed its doors to loads of waste pa­per, met­als or plas­tic un­less they’re 99.5 per­cent pure. That’s an unattain­able stan­dard at U.S. sin­gle-stream recycling pro­cess­ing plants de­signed to churn out bales of pa­per or plas­tic that are, at best, 97 per­cent free of con­tam­i­nants such as foam cups and food waste.

The re­sult­ing glut of re­cy­clables has caused prices to plum­met from lev­els al­ready de­pressed by other eco­nomic forces, in­clud­ing lower prices for oil, a key in­gre­di­ent in plas­tics.

The three largest pub­licly traded res­i­den­tial waste- haul­ing and recycling com­pa­nies in North Amer­ica — Waste Man­age­ment, Repub­lic Ser­vices and Waste Con­nec­tions — re­ported steep drops in recycling rev­enues in their se­cond-quar­ter fi­nan­cial re­sults. Hous­ton-based Waste Man­age­ment re­ported its av­er­age price for re­cy­clables was down 43 per­cent from the pre­vi­ous year.

“A year ago, a bale of mixed pape rwas worth about $100 per ton; to­day we have to pay about $15 to get rid of it,” says Richard Cou­p­land, vice pres­i­dent for mu­nic­i­pal sales at Phoenix-based Repub­lic, which han­dles 75mil­lion tons of mu­nic­i­pal solid waste and 8 mil­lion tons of re­cy­clables na­tion­wide an­nu­ally. “Smaller recycling com­pa­nies aren’t able to stay in busi­ness and are shut­ting down.”

Kirk­wood, Mis­souri, an­nounced plans this sum­mer to end curb­side recycling af­ter a St. Louis-area pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity shut down. Of­fi­cials in Rock Hill, South Carolina, were sur­prised to learn that re­cy­clables col­lected at curb­side were be­ing dumped be­cause of a lack of mar­kets. Lack of mar­kets led of­fi­cials to sus­pend recycling pro­grams in Gouldsboro, Maine; De­Bary, Florida; Franklin, New Hamp­shire; and Adrian Town­ship, Michi­gan. Pro­grams have been scaled back in Flagstaff, Ari­zona; La Crosse, Wis­con­sin; and Kankakee, Illi­nois.

Other com­mu­ni­ties are main­tain­ing recycling pro­grams but tak­ing a fi­nan­cial hit as re­gional pro­ces­sors have raised rates to off­set losses. Rich­land, Wash­ing­ton, is now pay­ing $122 a ton for Waste Man­age­ment to take its recycling; last year, the city was paid $16 a ton for the ma­te­ri­als. Stam­ford, Con­necti­cut, re­ceived $95,000 for re­cy­clables last year; the city’s new con­tract re­quires it to pay $700,000.

A big part of the prob­lem, be­sides lower com­mod­ity prices over­all, is sloppy recycling.

In the early days of recy- cling, peo­ple had to wash bot­tles and cans, and sort pa­per, plas­tic, glass and metal into sep­a­rate bins. Now there’s sin­gle-stream recycling, which al­lows all re­cy­clables to be tossed into one bin. While sin­gle-stream has ben­e­fited ef­fi­ciency, and cus­tomers like it, it’s been a chal­lenge on the con­tam­i­na­tion side.

A tour of Repub­lic’s fa­cil­ity in Bea­con, about an hour’s drive north of New York City, makes the chal­lenges clear. A third of the ma­te­rial dumped by col­lec­tion trucks is non-re­cy­clable “con­tam­i­nants” such as gar­den hoses, pic­nic cool­ers and bro­ken lawn­mow­ers. Work­ers have to pull that out and truck it to a land­fill, adding to over­all costs. Plas­tic bags con­tam­i­nate bales of other ma­te­ri­als and tan­gle ma­chin­ery. Spilled ketchup and greasy pizza boxes turn other­wise mar­ketable ma­te­rial into garbage.

“The death of recycling was com­pletely avoid­able and in­cred­i­bly eas­ily fixed,” says Mitch Hed­lund, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Re­cy­cle Across Amer­ica, which ad­vo­cates stan­dard­ized la­bel­ing on recycling bins so peo­ple un­der­stand what goes in and what doesn’t.

Arange of ini­tia­tives have been launched to get peo­ple to re­cy­cle right. Chicago is putting “oops” tags on curb­side recycling bins with im­proper con­tents and leav­ing them un­col­lected. Rhode Is­land is air­ing “Let’s Re­cy­cle Right” ads.


In this Thurs­day, Sept. 6, 2018, photo, a trailer door is opened on a truck filled with un­sorted re­cy­clable refuse as it is off­loaded and added to a gi­ant pile in a pro­cess­ing build­ing at EL Har­vey & Sons, a waste and recycling com­pany, in West­bor­ough, Mass. Recycling pro­grams across the United States are shut­ting down or scal­ing back be­cause of a global mar­ket cri­sis blamed on con­tam­i­na­tion at the curb­side bin.

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