The limitations of recycling

I recently left a job as the chief financial officer for a public waste management agency that provides services to residential and commercial customers in a mixed urban/rural county in California. 

The agency operates a recycling facility, known as a Materials Recovery Facility (“MRF”), to handle items thrown in recycling bins. This is in addition to operating a landfill, a landfill gas-to-energy power generation facility, on-site composting, and a resale store where goods – donated or recovered from the waste stream – are re-sold.

 As readers of this blog already know, only a small portion of the plastic products we consume today get recycled. My work gave me a view into the mechanics, economics and consumer behaviors that impact the effectiveness of plastics recycling today.  Here are a few of my observations:

 Recycling is expensive

Recycling requires significant capital investment. During my tenure we spent over $30 million upgrading our MRF infrastructure and doubled the size of our workforce dedicated to processing recyclables. 

The investments and increases in operating costs were funded through bonds (debt) and higher fees, all paid for by residential and commercial customers. They were also funded through state subsidies and the sale of recovered materials in the international commodities market.

 Recycling revenue is unpredictable

In California, recycling costs for PET (#1) and HDPE (#2) plastic containers, glass bottles and aluminum cans are partially offset by payments provided through the state’s bottle bill.  Funding for this subsidy comes from consumers, who pay a deposit when purchasing the container.  State “reimbursement” rates paid to MRF operators provide some degree of revenue stability to recyclers, though they are adjusted periodically. 

Not so for commodity sales, the other main source of recycling revenue.  Commodity prices for recovered recyclables can fluctuate widely, driven by such factors as the costs of alternative materials (think petroleum), public policy decisions, warfare, and other global market disruptions.  Our agency brought our new MRF on-line in 2016, just as China was shutting down acceptance of recycled materials from the West. This resulted in a collapse of certain commodity prices, requiring us at times to even pay to have some materials taken by brokers.  Since then, commodity prices have improved, providing a welcome boost to the economics of running our MRF. 

 Recycling is confusing

For some, the presence of the “chasing arrows” logo embossed on the bottom of plastic containers means toss in the recycling bin.  However, our recycling reality is different.  Twenty to thirty percent what showed up at our MRF was trash.  Few processors can or will handle anything beyond #1, #2 and #5, as ready markets are lacking for the rest.  Most other plastics end up in the landfill.  But we’ve trained consumers over the years on a simple message:  when in doubt, recycle it.  That messaging is hard to reverse; there is little public appetite for nuance. Today, public outreach and education must be non-stop to address the ever-changing world of recycling.  Behavior change comes slowly and grudgingly. 

 Where are we headed?

Mixed together, the ingredients of high cost, market volatility and consumer confusion yield a weak foundation for the one strategy that we collectively depend upon to keep plastic waste out of our waters and off our landscapes.  But there’s hope.

While the burden of plastics waste and recycling remains on the consumer, sentiment is shifting and both consumer brands and legislators are responding.  Many large brands are setting new targets for the recycled content of their packaging, which will create new demand for recycled feedstock and have the downstream effect of increasing the demand for, and improving the economics of, recycling programs. 

 At the same time, many national, state-wide and local jurisdictions are passing or evaluating laws affecting plastic waste and recycling.  These include:  requiring truth in recycling labeling, mandating minimum recycled content in packaging, strengthening bottle bills, banning certain single-use plastics, and creating extended producer responsibility (EPR) that shift the cost and/or responsibility for recycling back to producers.  Many of these changes would likely have positive impacts on recycling rates, recycler economics and overall plastic waste.

 Finally, a steady stream of technical developments and process changes are helping expand the scope of plastics that recyclers are able to recover and reuse.  Our agency worked closely with local berry packagers to find markets for the thermoformed (clamshell) plastic packages they use.  Other developments, like a recently developed Styrofoam recycling process, continue to give hope that plastics that today mostly go to the landfill (or worse) could soon become widely recycled. 

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