Changing times create big trouble for recycling
Helping environment is getting costly for cities
As millions of holiday deliveries head to doorsteps around the country, it’s becoming clear that some of this year’s gift boxes may not necessarily become next year’s gift boxes.
This holiday season collides with what has become known as the great recycling crisis. Earlier this year, China, which for years has been America’s go-to nation for processing recyclables into new boxes, started rejecting all but the cleanest, purest loads.
China’s decision left recyclers without a market, causing recyclables to pile up and prices to plummet. Their value fell by about half from pre-crisis levels, making it much more expensive to recycle glass, plastic and paper, according to Waste Management, the trash-hauling giant that bills itself as the nation’s largest residential recycler.
“The economics aren’t in our favor anymore,” said Brandon Wright, spokesman for the National Waste and Recycling Association.
The shift doesn’t bode well for the future of recycling. After years of conditioning Americans to throw all their reusable containers and paper in bins, cities across the U.S. are imposing higher collection fees, eliminating items they are willing to pick up, or in a few cases, weighing whether to curtail recycling altogether.
It isn’t good news for the environment. Roughly 35 percent of the nation’s total waste is diverted to recycling from the overall solid waste stream. That’s millions of tons of materials that can be
reused rather than having to use virgin materials. It also saves on the energy and effort required to make new items from scratch.
At holiday time, recycling bins can overflow with mountains of leftover packaging. UPS forecasts its crews will deliver 800 million packages this season, up from 762 million at the same time last year. Add 400 million or so more for FedEx if its total matches last year’s volume.
The online retailing revolution and home delivery have forced big changes in recycling. More cardboard boxes now go to homes rather than businesses, complicating pickup.
In Sacramento County, California, mixed paper was worth $85 to $95 a ton to recyclers a year ago. Lately, it’s been fetching $6.50 to $8.50. Lesser quality plastics were worth $45 a ton. Now it costs $35 to get it recycled. Cardboard prices fell, too.
Waste Management, which has about 100 U.S. recycling processing facilities, says the cost of processing recyclables was once $85 a ton. Now the sorted loads collectively only bring in about $65 a ton. Instead of receiving a check for their recyclables, cities are now being asked to pay to have them taken away, said Brent Bell, the company’s vice president of recycling.
His company has found other markets for recycled materials, but they are in India and other South Asian nations where it can cost more to ship.
The problem, in large measure, surrounds how Americans recycle. City dwellers love the convenience of piling everything into a single bin. But the mixing creates sorting issues later. Amazon boxes are environmentally friendly and completely recyclable, but not if they become saturated with battery acid or Thanksgiving turkey gravy. Paper is fine to recycle, but not if it’s a grease-smeared pizza box.
Bins are also contaminated with junk that shouldn’t be there at all, like spent garden hoses, broken-down lawn chairs, dead car batteries or the industry’s top bugaboo, plastic grocery bags. Waste Management said the overall contamination rate of recycled materials is about 25 percent.