Mar­ket forces put recycling in­dus­try in the dumps

San Francisco Chronicle - - NATION - By Mary Esch Mary Esch is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

AL­BANY, N.Y. — 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, Mass. “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 anti-pol­lu­tion 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. Hous­ton­based Waste Man­age­ment re­ported its av­er­age price for re­cy­clables was down 43 per­cent from the pre­vi­ous year.

“A year ago, a bale of mixed pa­per was 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 Phoenixbased Repub­lic, which han­dles 75 mil­lion 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.”

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