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Friday, October 19, 2018

Strategic CSR - Recycling

The article in the first url below lays out in great detail the perilous state of the recycling industry, ever since China refused to keep taking our trash this year (see also Strategic CSR – Recycling here and here):
"Oregon is serious about recycling. Its residents are accustomed to dutifully separating milk cartons, yogurt containers, cereal boxes and kombucha bottles from their trash to divert them from the landfill. But this year, because of a far-reaching rule change in China, some of the recyclables are ending up in the local dump anyway. In recent months, in fact, thousands of tons of material left curbside for recycling in dozens of American cities and towns — including several in Oregon — have gone to landfills."
The associated problems of contaminated waste and "aspirational recycling" feed directly into this problem:
"China's stricter requirements also mean that loads of recycling are more likely to be considered contaminated if they contain materials that are not recyclable. That has compounded a problem that waste managers call wishful or aspirational recycling: people setting aside items for recycling because they believe or hope they are recyclable, even when they aren't."
The result is a collapse in the market for recyclables:
"Western states, which have relied the most on Chinese recycling plants, have been hit especially hard. In some areas — like Eugene, Ore., and parts of Idaho, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii — local officials and garbage haulers will no longer accept certain items for recycling, in some cases refusing most plastics, glass and certain types of paper. Instead, they say, customers should throw these items in the trash."
Many regulators, however, are wary of warning people off recycling, preferring instead to keep encouraging the practice so that, when (or if) recycling becomes profitable, they will not have to teach people how to recycle again:
"Other communities, like Grants Pass, Ore., home to about 37,000 people, are continuing to encourage their residents to recycle as usual, but the materials are winding up in landfills anyway. Local waste managers said they were concerned that if they told residents to stop recycling, it could be hard to get them to start again."
The problem becomes obvious once you realize how important China was as a destination for recycled waste:
"Americans recycle roughly 66 million tons of material each year, … about one-third of which is exported. The majority of those exports once went to China, said David Biderman, the executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, a research and advocacy group. But American scrap exports to China fell by about 35 percent in the first two months of this year, after the ban was implemented, said Joseph Pickard, chief economist for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group. … In particular, exports of scrap plastic to China, valued at more than $300 million in 2015, totaled just $7.6 million in the first quarter of this year, down 90 percent from a year earlier, Mr. Pickard said. Other countries have stepped in to accept more plastics, but total scrap plastic exports are still down by 40 percent this year, he said."
Of course, the reason why the market for recycled material has cratered (or the costs of recycling make it prohibitive), is because the full costs of fossil fuels are not accounted for in the virgin products that we buy (plastics, in particular). If these costs were included, then we would have to pay the true costs of using virgin materials, which would make it worth our while to recycle those materials that have already been produced and consumed. Lifecycle pricing, although fiendishly complicated, would solve a lot of our sustainability problems and produce a much more efficient market. In order for that to occur, however, political leadership is required. As such, even though the article in the second url below suggests that some recyclers/waste managers are adapting, being forced to innovate in order to survive:
"American trash haulers and recyclers are becoming more prudent about how they collect and sort scrap after China stopped accepting most U.S. scrap exports earlier this year. … As a result, some recyclers have focused on producing cleaner loads of papers, plastic and corrugated cardboard, which can fetch higher prices. And cities and trash haulers are seeking alternative ways to manage such waste, while an abundance of hard-to-recycle plastics has revived some companies' use of that material to produce fuel."
The article in the third url below demonstrates that the problem is getting worse, not better:
"'There's no market. We're paying to get rid of it,' says Ben Harvey, president of EL Harvey & Sons, which handles recyclables from about 30 communities at its sorting facility in Westborough, Massachusetts. 'Seventy-five percent of what goes through our plant is worth nothing to negative numbers now.'"
Take care
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The library of CSR Newsletters are archived at:
Your Recycling Get Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not
By Livia Albeck-Ripka
May 31, 2018
The New York Times
Late Edition – Final
Recyclers Clean Up Their Waste
By Bob Tita
June 7, 2018
The Wall Street Journal
Late Edition – Final
Why America's recycling industry is in the dumps
October 10, 2018
CBS/Associated Press