On Rob’s Mind: Is Recycling Sustainable?

| Rob Smith

Is Recycling Sustainable?

Recycling has been growing in popularity within the United States over the past 35 years and entered our lives and conversations in many ways.  Residential curbside programs have developed into convenient single-stream, “one bin” programs included with many solid waste collection contracts.  Commercial recycling programs have likewise developed as a need to divert solid waste volume from our country’s landfills.  Industrial recycling has continued to also develop as a method to control production costs in a variety of industries.  Recycling has become a focus of sustainability programs and a pillar of the push for more sustainable lifestyles.  We can see this focus start as early as elementary education programs all the way to the C suites of major corporations and everybody in between.  As recycling has now become such a large part of our lives, recent changes in the industry and international landscape may have us questioning how sustainable recycling is in our current climate.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

Where are we with recycling and where is this all going? 

Recycling commodity market values are driven entirely by supply, demand and quality.  As a country, we have consistently driven the supply of commodities upwards by implementing collection programs for residential, commercial and industrially generated volumes since the late 1980’s.  As an industry, the solid waste professionals have educated customers to a point that landfill capacity and resource preservation have only been outweighed by the potential cost avoidance as the primary driver for participation.  Of course, we have also had the growing marketing strategies develop of landfill avoidance as well that has aided in this overall effort.

Where did the great times in recycling go? 

The economics of recycling have been severely tainted with the recent reduction in demand for the commodities.  This slide backwards has been largely fueled by the reduction in demand, specifically by China.  Without a huge uptick in domestic demand for the commodities collected, demand overall is impacted negatively.  In addition to dropping demand for commodities, we also see a higher focus on the quality of the processed material that is taken in.  Lower demand for material overall coupled with a higher demand for quality has driven commodity values to much lower levels.  So low, in fact, that some commodity values are at a charge rate that meets or exceeds the cost to landfill the material in many markets.  This means that in many cases it is now more expensive to recycle materials than it is to treat them as solid waste and send them to a landfill.

How does the recycling story go on? 

It is very apparent that we need to continue to develop domestic demand for our processed recycling commodities.  Our reliance on foreign markets to consume our commodities has the potential to continue to be affected by unrelated political issues as well as varying global conditions. In addition, we need to work to minimize the level of contamination on our collected volumes in order to minimize processing costs.  The incentives for recycling have changed over the past 24 months in the United States.  We need to remain focused on our collective recycling goals of preserving landfill capacity and resources while minimizing the desire for immediate financial gain. The ideas of creating domestic demand and our overall reduction in contamination in our recycling streams represent tangible steps that we can all be held accountable for, consumer and industry alike.  These steps and a nimble attitude toward unclear industry headwinds will be the key to us all doing our part in sustaining the United States’ recycling efforts.

“There’s a tremendous shift in the market when China won’t take half of these plastics. I really think that this export mindset that has developed in the U.S. is one that has to change”

Marian Chertow, director of the program on solid waste policy – Yale via NPR

Recycling is not going away chiefly because it is hard to argue with the overall benefits.  We will see new technology developed in the future to continue to reduce the associated processing costs in material recovery facilities.  Hopefully, we will also develop different uses for the commodities we continue to collect to help keep recycling a financially and environmentally friendly venture.  We all need to continue to play an active role in recycling wherever we can.  This can be as simple as the role we play in source separation coupled with owning the ultimate quality of the material we generate.  It is a demanding undertaking, recycling content in the items we purchase, despite the lack of clear financial incentive in the climate. As we work to maintain the momentum recycling has produced for a sustainable planet, each of us owns an important piece in the future sustainability of recycling.