Welcome to 2019, where China’s withdrawal from the international recovered commodity market continues. The items being moved to China’s list of banned materials are increasingly less of what we might consider “waste,” like bottles and cans, and more of what many might consider simply “materials,” such as scrap plastics from industrial processes. This is a reflection of the depth and breadth of the market changes we are seeing—it’s not just about contaminated bales or fractured trade relations. As solid waste managers at Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., we know our clients and colleagues are wondering about the impacts of this market disruption on their curbside and commercial recycling programs. We have advised our clients that what we are currently experiencing is a market disruption, not a market failure.
We’re not alone in saying that the market goes up and down, and we already see signs of domestic recycling making progress. Public-private and private-private partnerships are being signed into action to help close the resource loop, jurisdictions are expanding programs, recyclers are incorporating technology to clean up their streams and legislation is coming on line to help make food donation easier. Some folks, understandably, are still wondering about upcoming decisions they have to make regarding programs, contracts, etc. While nobody can predict the future, we know that recyclable materials remain useful and valuable—we just have to adjust how we get them from generator to user. And so, in the spirit of optimism, we offer the following rebuttals to common misconceptions to reassure even the most doubtful about the future of recycling:
Misconception: Postconsumer materials don’t have use as feedstock.
Reality: Actually, they do! Cardboard is highly recyclable, with any given box being about 50 percent recycled. Recovering metal is a practice only slightly newer than the use of metal itself. These materials, along with plastic flake and pellets, remain the building blocks of new products.
Misconception: Feedstocks can’t be adequately recovered.
Reality: Just wait. Recyclers are already rapidly inventing new ways to do so. For example, paper plants are making modifications to take a wider variety of paper products at their gates instead of relying on beneficiation.
Misconception: There is no demand for materials.
Reality: Yes there is! Monetary value is only one indicator of demand. The American Forest & Paper Association reports that almost half of recovered paper is used in the U.S. to produce boxes, boxboard and components of wallboard. Current metals tariffs are restricting imported supplies, opening up opportunity for U.S. scrap, which is good news for domestic companies.
Misconception: The future supply of recycling materials is uncertain.
Reality: Clearly, people, businesses and governments continue to demonstrate interest in, and dedication to, recovering recyclable materials. Thirty years after the second wave of recycling hit in the 1990s, recycling is considered a basic urban and suburban service.
Misconception: There is no reason to continue recycling because the economics don’t justify it.
Reality: The facts remain that recycling metal uses significantly less energy than sourcing ore to create virgin metal, burying nonrenewable resources is not always the most sustainable solution and production of recyclable waste items will continue for the foreseeable future. Recycling doesn’t necessarily have to pay for itself. The ultimate goal is sustainability, and the best solution is one that keeps the triple bottom line in mind. All people live in one interconnected environment, and there’s no such place as “away.”
There are always roadblocks on the pathway to success. Stay positive, stay creative, keep partnerships in mind and welcome this new year with open arms. 2019 will challenge us, but we’re strong and ready for it!