Recycling at a Crossroads

There is a lot of conflicting information out there regarding recycling lately. SECCRA, as a collector and processor of recyclables, are up against some major challenges with the soaring cost of recycling. As a result we may need to make some changes to how and what we recycle. Simply put, at this time, many of the commodities collected for recycling simply have no value, or worse, negative value. It has become that the way we are recycling now is costing more than simply landfilling the materials. We need your help to change this.


History of recycling

In the beginning of the recycling movement in the late 80s, recycling for the consumer was more complex than it is today. People often had to have separate bins for each commodity collected. For example, one may have had a bin for glass, a bin for metal cans, and a bin for plastic. People didn’t want to have separate bins in their kitchens – they take up a lot of space.  Conversely, at that point in time, recyclables had their highest value, since they were already separated by the consumer. 

Subsequently, knowing that recycling rates would increase if it was easier, we went to dual-stream recycling. Paper and cardboard in one bin, and everything else in the other. Recycling rates increased, but people still resisted recycling in separate bins. The value of recycling went down during the dual-stream era, however the value of the commodities, especially cardboard made the change less visible to the consumer in higher costs. 

Then the entire industry went to single-stream recycling, which made the recycling rate skyrocket. At the same time, the value of the commodity decreased significantly because of the added costs of processing a totally mixed stream of recyclables. That, plus the widely varying value of recycled commodities still allowed the net value of the separated commodities worthwhile. For example, the gain from recycling #1 plastic (high demand) far outweighed the cost to recycle glass (low demand).

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Latest trend in recycling

Most of the recycled materials generated in the US were shipped overseas, mostly to China, where they were used to create new goods. Now that China has essentially banned the importation of recyclables from the US, the supply of the recycled materials far outpaces the demand for them.

Why aren’t US companies using all the recycled material generated here? Contamination. Simply put, the Chinese companies using the recycled commodities had a higher tolerance for it. Where one mis-sorted green plastic bottle in a bale of clear plastic may not seem like much, it could mean the rejection of several finished goods because of color irregularities. In this case, the Chinese companies figured out easier ways to deal with the contamination issue than the US companies.


Contamination of recyclables

Before China stopped importing recyclables from the US, single stream recycling had a positive value, because the value of the desirable commodities was greater than the cost to deal with the undesirable commodities.  However, one of the things that has really contributed to the falling value of recyclables is contamination of the mixed paper. The recycled glass would break during transport and processing and would embed itself within the paper. In addition, liquids from containers that were recycled soaked into the paper. Either of these things results in a mixed paper commodity that requires additional processing to get it to the state where it could be recycled. As such, the cost to recycle mixed paper is such that it is pulling down the entire value of the single stream into the negative. 

Not only does the glass contaminate the mixed paper, there always has been very low demand for it as a recycled commodity, as making new glass is almost always cheaper.


Why is this relevant?

When the cost to recycle properly becomes greater than the cost to landfill, many will feel that it is more cost effective to simply dispose of the single stream in the landfill. This is not what we want, because we want our landfill to last as long as possible.