Article Written by: Steve Orr
Published in: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Even as you diligently fill your blue box each week, the recycling industry has been turned on its head — and you may have to change the way you recycle, and pay more for it, as a result.
For more than a quarter-century, local residents have set aside paper, plastic, glass and metal on the belief that the material would be sold to recyclers and ultimately reused.
But no longer. What you’re putting in your blue box has become a liability, not an asset.
- Paper and newsprint, which make up a good portion of the material being collected in New York’s major recycling centers, is worth next to nothing. Prices have tumbled so much that bales of paper fiber are being shipped to recycling mills at a considerable loss by the companies that run centers in Monroe County, Ontario County and elsewhere.
- Unbeknownst to most consumers, many of the glass containers that are carefully cleaned and placed into blue bins have — for years — been sent to landfills. Statewide, more than 122 million pounds of recycled mixed glass was used for landfill access roads and trash cover last year because there were no willing buyers.
- The market for plastics, which make up a small fraction of blue-box input, is better than for paper. But the price of some recycled plastics isn’t what it would be because the export market is in chaos.
- Residents, businesses and municipalities, which subsidize recycling programs already, have begun paying more because of this lack of viable markets. Additional rate increases are likely.
A broad market collapse like this has never happened before, experts say.
The root explanation lies in China, whose industries purchased and processed a good deal of the paper and plastic recycled in this country. But after tightening rules on imported recyclables for several years, Chinese authorities halted their import entirely in January.
They said bales of paper and plastic from the U.S. contained too many impurities — contamination that results in part from programs in this country to increase the amount of waste being recycled.
China’s move has left American companies and consumers that recycle with a diminished pool of buyers.
In parts of the country that relied most heavily on the Chinese markets, recycled paper and plastic are being packed into warehouses in hopes that someone will come along one day to buy them.
In some cases, material is being buried in landfills.
It’s not that dire in New York state. State environmental officials say no recyclables, with the notable exception of glass, are being landfilled. But there are significant problems, they agree.
“Recycling markets in New York are experiencing volatility due to changing trends, particularly trends overseas,” said Martin Brand, a deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. “Because of that volatility, some operations may be losing money on some products, or are at least finding it challenging to find suitable outlets for their material.”
With China out, recyclers are looking for new buyers
For years, some portion of the newspaper and mixed paper from upstate New York found its way to Chinese mills.
With that route foreclosed, recycling-center operators are still scrambling to find companies to take their paper fiber and to pay good money for it.
“Prices are down by over 50 percent and transportation to new markets is also more expensive,” said Garrett Trierweiler, a spokesman for Waste Management Inc., the Texas-based waste behemoth that operates Monroe County’s recycling center.
Mixed paper from Monroe’s recycling center, which serves customers from the city and many suburban neighborhoods, is now being shipped as far as India and Southeast Asia.
“Technically, we are paid for the mixed paper by the foreign mills that we deliver to,” Trierweiler said, “But by the time we pay to transport the material to a port and then ship it overseas, it ends up being a (net) cost.”
The story is the same in the town of Seneca, Ontario County, where Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems operates a large recycling center next to the Ontario County Landfill.
The center, which takes in recyclables from Ontario, Monroe and many other Finger Lakes counties, handled nearly 54,000 tons of paper, glass, plastic and metal in 2017.
Casella is shipping everything it gets, but like Waste Management, Casella is losing money in the process.
“The market for mixed paper has gone down by over 100 percent in the last year, meaning it now costs the company to recycle that material,” said Bob Cappadona, Casella’s vice president of recycling. “We’re facing the same challenges in marketing mixed paper and glass at all of our operations.”
Christine Brown, of Asheville GreenWorks, explains what can and cannot be recycled. Angela Wilhelm, email@example.com
The super-tight market for mixed paper hurts companies like Casella in two ways. Not only have prices plunged, but companies that are willing to buy the material have become more picky.
Like their counterparts in China, they’re demanding that bales of paper or plastic contain fewer impurities — no plastic bags or flattened milk jugs mixed in with the paper, fewer glass shards contaminating the plastic.
It’s a hard standard to meet. “Now, with newspaper, you can’t make it perfect enough to get rid of it,” said Burt Adams, who runs Broome Recycling in Binghamton. “It’s costing us $10 a ton to get rid of it.”
Gary Carrel, a solid waste recycling specialist for Erie County, said the recycling centers must spend more to improve the purity of their products.
“They were designed to meet the old criteria. Then when that criteria changed … these companies have to hire more people, they have to retool their processing equipment,” Carrel said. “That had an impact on the cost of recycling.”
Keep recycling (and open your wallet)
Despite the rock-bottom prices for paper, despite the truckloads of glass being hauled to landfills, local, county and state officials say this is not the time to give up on the blue boxes.
“Keep recycling. We have to do it. It’s a good thing to do,” said Brand, the DEC deputy commissioner. “Recycling provides enormous benefit to the environment by conserving natural resources … it diverts waste from landfills, and creates useful products.”
Indeed, the several million tons of paper fiber and plastic collected for recycling in New York each year wind up in your cereal box, your toilet paper, your fleece zip-up, your trash bags and many more everyday products.
Giving up on recycling would mean throwing all that away.
“The challenge is really daunting, but we’re recycling right,” said Michael Garland, Monroe County’s environmental services director. “It’s just going to take time for the market to adjust and adapt to new conditions.”
Part of the adjustments involve money — perhaps your money.
The funds to run any recycling center, including Monroe’s, comes from the sale of recycled commodities and the payment of direct or indirect fees by the customers whose recyclables are being processed.
And when one funding stream declines, the other has to increase.
Mandatory recycling in New York is done through drop-off facilities, private recycling operations and government-owned recycling centers.
In Monroe County, the center and its equipment are owned by the county government. Waste Management, which is midway through a 10-year contract to run Monroe’s recycling center, hires the workforce and pays to run the facility.
The company also is contractually obligated to pay the county a fee for each ton processed — it totaled about $309,000 last year — and to rebate a portion of the revenue derived from the sale of paper fiber.
The rebates wind up in city coffers under its long-term waste-handling deal with the county. The rebate has averaged $80,000 annually in recent years and risen as high as $200,000, but this year it’s on track to be below $20,000.
Waste Management has already raised the rates it charges both residential and commercial recycling customers, Trierweiler said
Those fees are paid by private haulers that drop off recyclables at the center.
To recoup those higher fees, haulers have or will raise the tab paid by their residential and business customers. How big those increases are, remains to be seen.
Waste Management also has approached the county about renegotiating the financial terms of their contract, Trierweiler and Garland said. No amendment has been agreed to yet.
Similar increases are being put in place elsewhere.
No buyers for mixed glass
Two years ago, Wegmans Food Markets ditched glass jars for its popular house brand pasta sauce. The company switched to plastic.
The primary reasons were that plastic is lighter than glass, making shipping more efficient and economical, and that plastic jars bounce instead of shatter when they’re dropped.
But there was a third reason: Glass isn’t truly recycled very often.
“Glass is declining in the amount that’s getting recycled,” said Jason Wadsworth, Wegmans’ sustainability manager. “I have no data, but it feels that way — that there’s a trend away from glass into plastic.”
The Gates-based grocery has switched to plastic containers for its store-label peanut butter, some condiments and other food products, he said.
The company is hardly alone. More and more food-packagers are eschewing glass. Snapple just switched from glass to plastic, infuriating some customers who believe glass is a more environmentally responsible container.
Glass seems eminently recyclable, and people have continued to diligently rinse and set out their glass pickle jars and salad-dressing bottles in the expectation the material will be reused.
The last time mixed glass from Monroe County blue boxes had a buyer was at least five years ago, Garland said. The same is true at Ontario County’s recycling center, which serves a number of Finger Lakes counties. In Onondaga County, it’s been more like 10 years.
This is the case throughout much of New York state.
“The demand for recycled glass has not been strong in upstate New York for some time now, and that demand is diminishing,” said Waste Management’s Trierweiler.
State environmental officials say some recycled mixed glass is occasionally sold to be made into new containers. More frequently, it’s used as an additive to materials such as asphalt, or for sandblasting.
A major exception are the glass soda and beer bottles that consumers redeem for the five-cent deposit. Those bottles are uniform in shape and come in easily distinguished hues.
Machines sort them by color, then they’re crushed, cleaned and shipped straight to glass-bottle furnaces, said Chuck Riegle, a spokesman for TOMRA, a global company that is a leader in New York state deposit-container processing.
Most of that glass is made into new bottles, he said.
But blue-box glass? Forget about it. Different colors and types of glass are shattered and jumbled together during processing with no chance to separate them by color. The resulting cullet is a dirty-grey product contaminated by paper scraps and food waste.
No one wants to make new pickle jars out of that.
Instead, a good portion of it goes to the dump.
Ten of New York’s 27 solid-waste landfills reported using a total of 61,200 tons of recycled glass for construction or cover last year, according to reports filed with the DEC.
About 7,100 tons of glass was trucked from Monroe County’s recycling center to its Mill Seat Landfill in Riga last year. About 9,400 tons from Finger Lakes communities wound up in the Ontario County Landfill.
By weight, glass is the second-biggest component of the recyclable stream, behind paper fiber. In Monroe County, it makes up 15 percent and in Ontario County, 20 percent.
Material processed in 2017 at the Monroe County recycling center
The diversion of the glass to landfills required special dispensation from the DEC, which the agency grants on the basis that using glass helps landfill operators save money and avoid using other material for cover.
The infrequency with which recycled glass winds up in new glass products raises a reasonable question: Wouldn’t it make more sense to amend the law to remove glass from the list of materials that must be recycled and just throw it all away?
Recycling experts say erasing glass from the must-recycle list would confuse consumers. What if new buyers appear who want recycled mixed glass?
“We want to be sure we’re not doing anything in haste,” said Carla Jordan, an associate planner for Ontario County who works on recycling issues. “We don’t want to say to consumers ‘Don’t recycle glass’ and then say next week we do want it recycled.”
Single stream can create more contamination
Tips on what should and should NOT be placed in recycling containers, according to Brevard Waste Management. Video by Tim Shortt, FLORIDA TODAY Tim Shortt, FLORIDA TODAY
Some of the blame for the sorry state of glass recycling in New York goes to an innovation known as single-stream recycling.
Some of the blame for other disappointing factors goes to single-stream as well.
With single-stream recycling, which was instituted at the Monroe County center about five years ago and is now in place across New York; paper, glass, plastic and metal are mingled in blue boxes and in collection trucks.
They’re separated into their constituent parts during processing. This replaced processes where households would sort newsprint and paper products for collection.
Single-stream is easier for consumers. Many municipalities and private haulers give customers large wheeler toters for their recyclables, which encourages people to recycle more, providing more product for recycling centers to recover and sell.
It was billed as a win-win.
But there were downsides. The large recycling containers encourage people to throw more stuff in. Inevitably, some of it is unrecyclable trash. They leave uneaten slices in the pizza box, or toss in undesirable plastic bags, forks and straws.
This is one big way for contaminants to enter the recycling stream.
Officials in Monroe, Ontario, Onondaga and Erie counties all told the Democrat and Chronicle that contamination rates are in the single digits and rose only slightly when single-stream was put in place.
But in some parts of the country, single-stream drove the contamination rate to over 20 percent — meaning 1 pound put of every 5 was unwanted trash.
Single-stream equipment shatters glass containers and chops up the pieces. This not only diminishes the value of the mixed glass but creates an endless supply of shards that contaminate other recyclables.
“Hindsight is 20-20, but when single stream was implemented, somebody should have figured out ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t put glass in there,’” Erie County’s Carrel said.
Quality control is in your hands
At least once a day, Monroe County’s recycling plant shuts down to clean up plastic bags that people mistakenly place in their curbside bins. Erica Bryant
Change is likely.
Several observers said the China experience shows the need for more domestic buyers of paper fiber, plastics and even mixed glass.
“If we don’t develop or seek ways to find capacity for the fiber, we’re going to continue to be at the mercy of the international market.” said Andrew Radin, director of recycling and waste reduction for the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency.
“It’s the mills that take the scrap paper to reprocess it, and then it’s manufacturers who take that product and use it for new products — packaging, paper towels, whatever,” he said. “It’s an economic development challenge. There are opportunities to be explored.”
Waste Management’s Trierweiler said the need is less for new buyers than for better-quality material with fewer contaminants. If there is government involvement, it should be there, he said.
DEC officials said a major focus for the agency has been efforts to reduce the amount of waste being produced and divert as much as possible for re-use. Cognizant of the concerns about contaminants, DEC experts have been working with recycling centers on ways to clean up their output.
The public can expect fresh appeals from agencies and recycling centers to do an even better job at the front end of the process; in your basement or garage.
“What people put into the blue box matters,” said Onondaga County’s Radin. “It’s important that they don’t put the incorrect items in. A lot of what triggered this (market collapse) is the quality concerns that China had.”
In a way, it’s a retrenchment that’s needed.
“We worked hard to make it as easy as possible. We said, ‘Just put it in recycling and we’ll take care of it.’ But now it’s no longer the case,” said Goldstein, the Erie recycling coordinator.
“Now it’s ‘Be very careful what you put in your recycling bin.’”
Includes reporting by Pay It Forward columnist Erica Bryant.
Read the Original Article here.