Whether you call it a “collapse,” a “crisis” or a market “in the dumps,” as CBS News recently did, it’s clear the global recycling scene has changed.
Last year, China effectively stopped importing recycled materials for processing, and other countries are considering similar action.
For two local governments, the market shift means the cost to recycle has more than doubled over the past year or two. The City of Columbia currently pays about $20,000 a month to have its collected products recycled — up from as little as $2,000 a month during boom times several years ago, when the money brought in from selling the city’s collected cardboard nearly covered the cost to process other products. Lexington County, with its larger population, now pays about $35,000 a month to have its curbside residential recycling processed, with the rate per ton having increased from $25 a few years ago to $54 as of December, and still climbing.
Local governments across the United States are in the same boat. In some parts of the country, leaders have chosen to stop recycling altogether, unable to afford the higher cost — including the Midlands town of Pine Ridge, which stopped curbside recycling in November.
But Traude Sander, Lexington County’s recycling coordinator, says the county at large is still accepting recyclable materials and sending them to be recycled.
“I read a lot of unfortunate articles that say the materials you’re bringing in are not being recycled, they’re going to the landfill,” Sander says. “That really is not the case and I want to make sure our residents know that.” If the county can’t recycle a particular material anymore, she says, they’ll let the public know.
Local governments collect recycling and send it to a MRF — a materials recovery facility, pronounced “murf” — where it’s separated by machines, including lasers, and sometimes partly by hand. It’s then sold to manufacturers and other end market users.
“The real impact of the global changes is in the prices of the materials that we’re recycling, not in our ability to recycle those materials,” Sander says. “That’s what the experts are telling us: We will still be able to recycle the material, it’s just that we’re getting paid a lot less for that material. And in some cases we’re paying to have them recycled or have them processed.”
There’s solid demand for some products, like metal. And in South Carolina, the market for plastic bottles is so strong that manufacturers actually have to import bottles to meet demand. There’s an entire program, Your Bottle Means Jobs, devoted to urging South Carolinians to recycle more plastic bottles to support local industries.
But contamination — from food, and from unrecyclable materials — increases the difficulty and cost of processing recyclables. It’s why China stopped accepting imported recycling.
For the City of Columbia’s Samantha Yager, assistant director of public works, educating people about how to recycle better is key to ensuring a future for recycling.
“What we’re facing is all these wishful recyclers: ‘I wish this could be recycled so I’m going to throw it in my cart anyways,’” Yager says. “That’s where you see a lot of contaminants.”
The main problems, according to Yager: “Plastic bags; food waste; what we call tanglers, which are things like your garden hoses, hangers, clothing, all of that. Things you could recycle, just not in your curbside cart.
“There’s a little bit of a disconnect between the packaging industry and the recycling industry,” she explains. “People see that symbol and say, ‘Let me throw it in my cart.’ But recycling is very hyperlocalized, so what can be recycled here in Columbia may not be able to be recycled here in Aiken or Rock Hill.”
The Midlands town of Irmo, for example, does not recycle glass.
Ultimately, says Robert Anderson, the City of Columbia’s public works director, recycling is still worth it. He started the city’s recycling program back in 1991.
“The program was never meant to pay for itself,” Anderson says. “We’d have loved for it to happen — but I think if you look at the overall environmental consequences, what we’ve saved by not putting this material in a landfill for however many years it’s been. …”
He doesn’t foresee the city having to stop recycling any materials anytime soon — though he says nothing is impossible.
Lexington County’s Sander echoes his optimism when asked whether paying to recycle is worth it.
“One hundred percent it’s worth it,” she says. “It’s not just good for the environment — the recycling market has had six downturns in the last 20 years. This is a big dip in the market, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s like any business. This is a down and it will come back up.
“You can’t just throw your arms up and say, ‘We’re not going to recycle.’”