“Recycling Still Rule$!” But the “Rules They are a Changin”

Mike Durfor and Duncan Watson

The theme for the 38th Annual Northeast Resource Recovery Association (NRRA) conference on May 20 and 21 this year is “Recycling Still Rule$” and for good reason. Regardless of the increasing number of cities and towns that are facing drastic budget shortfalls and the number of articles that report on the demise of recycling, recycling is doing just fine - thank you very much - the real problem is trash!

Hopefully in the course of this article you will gain a better understanding of what China has done to the recycling markets over the last 5 years, why it had to do it, and why the impact is now beginning to hit home as more and more municipalities are faced with a choice of paying (average non contracted rates) $140 per ton for single stream recycling compared to $70 per ton for MSW (trash), or even less -$35 per ton for recycling glass.

In addition to the “crisis” in recycling and municipalities taking their recyclables to landfills and burn plants, the Northeast is facing the “Titanic” of all municipal solid waste icebergs. As they say, “We have seen this movie before and it doesn’t end well.”

Shown in the table below is the projection from the State of Massachusetts on landfills closing in that state over the next 6-7 years. The shortage will grow this year by 800,000 tons alone and by 2025, Massachusetts will have a shortfall of MSW capacity over 2 million tons!

Chart 1

Waste companies are currently exploring all options including baling trash and hauling it to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and even Ohio. The Northeast already has the highest tipping fees for trash in the country and these fees will only continue to escalate and have an even bigger impact on community budgets than recyclables. Putting recyclables in a landfill or burning them only guarantees a shorter lifespan for the landfill and higher tip fees sooner.

As you can see from this figure below, even before the China crisis we were throwing valuable materials away.

Chart 2

Currently NRRA members that keep producing good clean material for markets are getting paid good value, (in most cases higher value because they are not contaminated), for their recyclables. Mixed paper is the one piece of the stream that was hit the hardest by the China crisis and NRRA has been searching for alternative uses and for a long-term domestic capacity solution just as it found for glass recycling. The rules for recycling may be changing but the value is still there if not contaminated.

The China Crisis: Years in the Making

Trade journals and the mainstream media is awash with articles about the impact of China’s National Sword policy that took the 2013 Green Fence policy, the proverbial shot across the bow, and in July of 2017 turned it into a crippling blow that has left recyclers everywhere scrambling.

About two decades ago China began incorporating capitalism into its economy and the result was at first a trickle, then a torrent of demand for raw materials to fuel their double-digit economic growth rate. Imagine, if you will, what American society was like during the Wild West years- kind of a free for all with little law or regulation to keep things in check. China had its own Wild West at the beginning of its economic growth and well-established economies in developed countries seized on the opportunity to send discards to a place where there was an insatiable appetite for pretty much everything, and for pennies on the pound, waste brokers were making a killing as there was little in the way of specifications to risk a load being rejected. Soon upwards of 2,000 shipping containers filled with discards - paper, plastic, metal were leaving U.S. ports bound for China each day.

In 2013 Chinese officials realized their country was becoming a dumping ground with, in some cases, over 20% of a received load being off specification and therefore requiring alternate disposal other than recycling. This problem was further exacerbated by the lack of infrastructure to properly dispose of the non-recyclable material. The result was polluted waterways, open burning dumps, and an environmental disaster of the worst kind.

When the Green Fence policy deployed in 2013, China began the deliberate process of gaining control over their sovereignty and put the world on notice that if demand called for a ton a mixed paper to feed a Chinese paper mill the expectation was a ton of paper, not 80% paper and 20% garbage. Initially a couple of container ships were turned back because of non-compliance with specifications. It was still mostly a free for all and China continued to have an unquenchable appetite for raw materials, and as a result, the world continued to send China its discards. While the Green Fence policy was in place it became clear that economic growth was more important than environmental protection and the beat went on.

In July of 2017, China announced a new policy would take effect. In fact, National Sword, which took effect on January 1, 2018 took everyone by “surprise” because little to no heed was given to what impact a country that took approximately 55% of the worlds scrap paper would have if they suddenly put up a closed sign.

Chart 3

While the national recycling rate in the U.S. is nothing to crow about, we are in a short-term crisis mode as the painful adjustment to the global commodities market continues to settle in. Yes, there will be some developing countries with lax environmental laws filling some of the void, but the simple fact is there is not the capacity to shift all of the available material to a new source. Nor should we. We should be responsible for improved quality of the material processed by materials recovery facilities, and we should have greater capacity to utilize these raw materials domestically.

As this crisis continues to unfold, communities and recycling processors in the U.S. are forced to make some uncomfortable decisions. There is no practical way to stockpile all the material that would normally be shipped to China. As painful as it is to admit, there will be a need to burn or bury large amounts of material until the market responds to make recycling domestically more economical.

Because the City of Keene operates a duel stream materials recovery facility it can produce a quality of material that continues to be both desirable and marketable. That may change as this crisis continues to grow. As difficult as this is making things, it is incumbent on recyclers to improve the quality of their product to the greatest extent possible as for years there was little to no accountability. This “crisis” is akin to the wakeup call provided by the MOBRO garbage barge from New York City that sailed the oceans for six months before being allowed to return and landfill the trash. The remarkable response to that episode created a culture of recycling in the U.S. that is laudable.

It’s now time one again for our next moonshot and for us to take greater care of how we manage our recyclables. As President Kennedy commented on the trip to the moon, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

We find ourselves at a similar crossroad today. This is the time we must choose to recycle, not because it is easy to do, but because it is hard, it does cost money, and most importantly, it is the right thing to do!

Mike Durfor is Executive Director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association and can be reached a 603.736.4401 ext 16 or via email at mdurfor@nrra.net. Duncan Watson is Assistant Public Works Director in the City of Keene and he also serves as President of the NRRA. Duncan can be reached by phone at 603.352.6550.