Recycling is a business, and without buyers there’s no profit.
Signature Waste owner Joe Swinford has been in the business for over 20 years. He’s watched the market ebb and flow, but he’s worried it may soon dry up.
“It’s amazing that we even have recycling at all right now,” he said. “I’d say that in six months to a year it will be gone. Maybe sooner.”
Signature Waste collects recycling for Tega Cay, Pineville, N.C., and about 18,000 York County customers. Once the trucks pick up the recycling, the drivers haul it to Sonoco in Charlotte, which serves a large part of the regio including the tri-county area of York, Lancaster and Chester counties.
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Swinford said everything has changed during the past year because of market forces. Sonoco now inspects every load thoroughly to weed out unacceptable items.
“I’ve got customers who are throwing yard debris, lumber, timber and bricks, even raw sewage, in our recycling cans,” he said. “My costs are continuing to go up and up, and our supply of what we can put in there is getting less and less.”
Although curbside recycling pickup transformed an arduous sorting task into a convenient one-stop drop for eco-conscious residents, it’s become one of the industry’s downfalls, often leading to contamination. Residents also try to recycle materials that aren’t recyclable, which can contaminate an entire truckload.
Last year, contamination didn’t present as much of a problem. Domestic recycling companies pulled out the purest products and sold the rest overseas. But China’s recently imposed bans on foreign waste have caused a surplus of recyclables on U.S. soil.
“This means some of the less pure collected materials that can’t be reprocessed back into something are going to a landfill,” Sonoco Corporate Communications Director Brian Risinger said. “This also means the supply of material remaining in the U.S. has increased, but the market is not large enough where all of it can be processed and reused.”
Like other recycling companies, Sonoco would sell some materials to China and some to other companies, but a significant portion was used to create a product. For Sonoco, that product is recycled paperboard — a paper-based packaging.
Risinger said a few years ago the demand for recycled paperboard was so high, many companies found it cheaper to purchase virgin material.
“The actions by China have completely changed that scenario, simply because of the impact on supply and demand,” he said. “The available supply in the U.S., without China as a buyer, greatly increased, driving down the cost or value of the available recycled paper material.”
Feeling the pinch
The consequences of a crippling recycling industry are slowly trickling down the supply chain. Although many municipalities aren’t yet aware of the issues, companies they contract with for recycling services are feeling the effects.
Waste Pro collects recycling for the town of Fort Mill. Like Swinford’s company, it’s the middleman between the municipality and the recycling vendor.
“Tipping fees are increasing,” Waste Pro of North Carolina division manager Jennifer Herring said. Tipping fees are what materials collectors and haulers pay to the facility that accepts their load.
After collecting in Fort Mill, Waste Pro hauls its recycling to ReCommunity in Charlotte. ReCommunity was recently acquired by Republic Services, the second largest service provider in the domestic non-hazardous solid waste industry.
Republic Services Fort Mill Operations Director Nick Ober said recycling started as a relatively easy concept of converting discarded resources into reusable material, but, over time, two things happened: the way manufacturers package their products changed and community recycling guidelines became disparate and confusing.
“China’s decision to change its acceptance criteria compounded the problem,” Ober said. “Forty percent of U.S. recyclables were exported to China. For us, thirty percent until the spring; today less than one percent.”
The market for mixed paper dropped from $70 per ton in June 2017 to $0 or below today. This means Republic Services now pays to handle those materials.
Changing what’s accepted
Risinger said paper and plastic are the primary materials impacted, but municipalities around the country also are having similar issues with glass — to the point where many municipalities aren’t putting glass into the recycling stream.
Recyclables from Tega Cay, and Chester and Lancaster counties all feed into Sonoco. The company also takes material from the cities of Chester and Lancaster. Since Sonoco no longer accepts glass, Tega Cay and Chester County also stopped taking it. Lancaster County will soon follow, officials there said. The city of Lancaster is still accepting glass, although Sonoco strips the material from its intake.
There are no changes anticipated for municipal service inside Fort Mill town limits, Herring said.
Residents in the town of Van Wyck, just outside Indian Land in Lancaster County, use the county recycling centers.
Rock Hill city officials were recently surprised to learn glass and plastics numbered three through seven are being sent to the landfill. The city’s recycling vendor, Pratt Industries, can no longer find end markets for these items.
York County recently constructed a material recovery facility to process its recyclables. Arthur Ligon, York County recycling supervisor, said the county stopped accepting glass, plastic bags and shredded paper in the mixed recycling in preparation for the new facility. However, these items are accepted for recycling but must be placed in designated containers at the county’s convenience centers.
“Broken glass acts likes sand paper in the processing equipment and broken/mixed glass is hard to market,” Ligon said. “Plastic bags wrap around the processing equipment and cause expensive repairs, downtime and cause safety issues for workers. Shredded paper is so small that it falls through the equipment.”
York County’s glass goes to Strategic Materials in Atlanta where it’s sorted by color, crushed and screened to meet strict specifications for recycling into the glass container manufacturing or fiberglass insulation markets.
Laura Hennemann, marketing and communications vice president for Strategic Materials, said the demand in the Georgia market is more than the company can recover within the state, so glass is imported from other states.
“Furnace-ready recycled glass, commonly known as cullet, is beneficial to the manufacturing process of these products due to a lower melting temperature in the furnace, resulting in lower energy costs and, therefore, carbon dioxide emission savings,” Hennemann said. “Cullet reduces the strain on the equipment used to manufacture these products reducing maintenance costs, down-time and extending furnace life.”
Glass is, and has always been, recycled domestically — supporting local jobs, communities and the environment, Hennemann said. However, when China no longer accepts materials such as paper or plastic, material recovery facilities — which typically process single-sort material — are forced to look for cost-savings measures.
“Glass is an easy target, but it is a red herring,” Hennemann said. “Glass that is not recycled or cut from curbside programs is typically landfilled and done so at a higher rate or cost than the cost of recycling depending on the region.”
Glass is heavy and it breaks, but Hennemann said it is valuable to end markets and does not belong in landfills.
“By investing in better clean up systems or equipment,” she said, “many regions can see an increase in glass value helping to offset some of the costs associated with China’s strict specifications on paper and plastic.”
Although the future of recycling may seem bleak, Sonoco is searching for solutions. It’s looking for new markets in Vietnam and Malaysia to sell its materials and researching new technology to process less pure materials to use as feedstock for producing some of its paper-based products.
Republic Services is implementing advanced sorting technologies and, most importantly, educating its customers.
“Avoid ‘wishful recycling,’ understand which items cannot go into the recycling containers such as plastic bags, shredded paper napkins, take-out food containers, and paper and plastic cups,” Ober said. “And be sure recyclables are empty, clean and dry before tossing them into the blue recycling container.”
The No. 1 top priority to remember is “clean and empty.” Here are tips for becoming a more conscientious recycler:
- Know what items are accepted for recycling and stick to that list.
- Never place recyclables in containers or bags.
- No Styrofoam, paper or plastic cups, plastic utensils, napkins or wrappers.
- No plastic bags (most grocery stores recycle these). *
- Focus on paper, No. 1 and No. 2 plastics, metal cans and aluminum (these items have solid end markets).
- No food waste.
- No soiled paper (tops of pizza boxes only if uncontaminated are accepted).
- No yard waste, diapers, clothing or batteries.
- No tools, toys, construction waste or medical items.
*Plastic bags are accepted at the York County convenience centers.