MARCH 6, 2019
The world’s recycling market has been flipped on its financial head, and the impact has finally reached your curbside.
In small towns from Virginia to New Hampshire, local leaders are looking at the numbers and beginning to pull the plug.
Meanwhile, the major jurisdictions around the Washington D.C. area remain committed to recycling, even though the business has flipped from making modest profits to significant losses, which taxpayers will ultimately absorb.
“It’s still cheaper per ton to recycling than it is to bury things in a landfill or send them to incinerators,” said Adam Ortiz, who was the director of waste management in Prince George’s County, Maryland until taking over as the director of Environmental Protection in Montgomery County.
Even so, Prince George’s went from earning a modest $750,000 on the sales of its recovered paper, cans, bottles and plastic in 2017 to posting losses of nearly $2.7 million.
It’s a similar situation in Montgomery County, Maryland where huge bales of mixed paper used to bring in $155 dollars per ton. By late 2018, the price had collapsed to merely $10 dollars per ton.
In smaller jurisdictions like Broadway, Virginia nestled in the Shenandoah Valley’s Rockingham County, the financial burden is too much.
Broadway was forced to suspend its curbside recycling program when contractor Waste Management said it was going to suspend curbside pickup service after at first reporting the costs to continue would be going up 63%, according to reporting by The Atlantic.
Towns from Idaho to New York have been forced to send bales of recycled paper to landfills or incinerators after the collapse of the market for the recovered material, the magazine reported.
This market meltdown is all the result of a major policy shift in China, which used to be the largest buyer of recycled commodities in the world but then abruptly stopped as the country faces pressure from its own people to address unfolding environmental crises in the country.
The Chinese ordered importers to stop buying mixed paper from recycling programs in North America with more than .05 percent contamination of plastic and other items.
The standard is all but impossible to meet for US recycling programs that frequently face contamination rates of more than 30 percent because residents generally do a poor job of complying with recycling rules.
Recyclers in other countries like India and Vietnam are still buying, but at much lower prices.
At one sorting facility in Manassas, Virginia which takes curbside recycling from Arlington and Fairfax counties, the contamination is so bad the sorting machinery is shut down for about 15 minutes per shift so that workers can unclog the machinery with grinders and hatchets.
“Plastic bags are the #1 issue,” said American Disposal Services plant Manager John Foy. “If it’s not supposed to be there, don’t throw it in there,” Foy pleaded after showing WUSA9 truckloads of recycling being dumped at the plant filled with everything from banned plastic bags to TVs and pieces of furniture.
“People will throw anything and everything in here thinking we can sort it out,” Foy said. “They are wrong. As some point we just can’t get it all.”
It’s the dirty secret being exposed by the recycling market collapse. Municipal recycling is full of trash.
At Montgomery County, Maryland’s recycled materials recovery facility (or MRF) manager Jeff Camera looked at bales of mixed paper and instantly spotted shreds of plastic hanging in plain view.
“This here is enough for the Chinese to reject this,” Camera said as he pulled the plastic out of the compressed cube of paper weighing more than a half ton.
The bales were being loaded onto international shipping containers headed for recyclers in India who are willing to accept the contamination rate from the US, but at a much lower price.
“These are monumental shifts in the economics of these programs,” said Jonathan Sloane, an international recycled commodities broker based in Baltimore.
“We as an industry are having to make better quality,” Sloane said. “But given the feedstock you get, particularly from the residential side, that’s a real challenge.”
While the industry works on better sorting technologies, local recycling programs are now ramping up education and enforcement efforts to get residents to stop throwing prohibited items like single-use plastic grocery bags in recycling bins.
A major difficulty is that not all recycling programs are the same. Some will take items others won’t. It can depend on which contractor provides pick up and sorting services, and what regional markets they may have for the commodities they handle.
Meanwhile, though plastic grocery bags are harmful when thrown in recycling, many stores will collect used bags in special bins as long as they are clean and not mixed with other items.
The results of this system can be head-spinning for a citizen who just wants to do the right thing.
In Montgomery County, Maryland for instance, residents must separate paper products into a separate container from other recycling in what’s called a “dual stream system.”
One information flyer separates acceptable materials into 15 different categories nearly impossible for any homeowner to memorize.
Meanwhile in Fairfax County Virginia, all but 10 percent of county residents must contact the private trash hauler who handle’s their neighborhood to figure out what they will take.
Many of the prohibited items in Fairfax County such as plastic clamshell food containers are acceptable in Montgomery County.
Meanwhile, Prince George’s County Maryland asks residents to put all their recycling into one bin which is called “single stream” recycling.
Program experts say its no wonder contamination rates and confusion are high.
One hard and fast rule across all programs is that no plastic bags are acceptable in mixed recycling.
What will my community take? The following links will help you understand your local program and do a better job of reducing the overall contamination rate: