What’s in a year?

Columns - Waste Watch

December 7, 2018

This time of year, people tend to reflect on what has happened over the past 12 months. At GBB, we’re no different. Our staff recently got together to take a look back at the past year to see how the events of 2018 influenced the recycling and waste reduction efforts taking place across the country today.

In reviewing our own work with clients and surveying what has been discussed in articles, conference sessions and meeting rooms, a few topics jumped out:

  • Markets for collected recyclables are hiccupping;
  • Mature curbside collection contracts are coming up for re-procurement; and
  • Corporations are making massive funding commitments to recycling programs.

A look inside markets: It’s impossible to comment on the current state of the waste and recycling markets without mentioning China’s effective withdrawal from the international scrap market. Last year, the proposed prohibitive rates that China filed with the World Trade Organization were even lower than expected. When the policy went into effect in early 2018, the impact on global pricing was shocking. Many U.S. coastal communities, dependent almost entirely on export for marketing recyclables, were unable to move product. Inland communities, which can be less reliant on export, felt ripple effects in their pricing.

One GBB client in the Great Plains states had requested sample pricing to process its recyclables in August 2017. The 2017 price, with revenue sharing in excess of 75 percent, gave the community a net value of about $0 to $3 per ton (i.e., the same price as disposal or even a couple dollars better.) One year later, the client is negotiating with the same processor for the same terms, except the processing price per ton is about one-third higher and the prevailing commodity values mean the recyclables will have a net negative value of minus $30 or more per ton.

Mature recycling programs re-entering the procurement phase: Can you believe it’s been nearly 20 years since we said goodbye to the ‘90s? Requests for proposal (RFPs) for service contracts have been coming up for several years from some of the first adopters of curbside recycling. The 20-year contracts signed back in the 1990s are coming due, and the shorter 10- to 15-year contracts that originated during that era and were re-procured during the early 2000s are coming back around, too. When reconsidering the service profile, these communities are evaluating the impacts of the fall of the print news industry, the rise of online shopping, declines in bagged yard waste, increased demand for food waste composting and the necessity (or lack thereof) of twice-weekly garbage collection in the age of single-stream recycling carts. These are long-term trends, but the difference from 2017 to 2018 is the added layer of complication these matters take on in light of shifting global markets.

Corporate funding for recycling and waste abatement: In many communities, recycling programs have been—and remain—dependent on baseline garbage operations (i.e., landfill disposal fees or garbage collection fees) for their funding. To offset this paradigm, organizations like The Recycling Partnership have been recruiting companies that manufacture and market recyclable products and packaging to commit millions of dollars to support the critical public activity of recycling. The investments have swelled year over year. The funds are used, in part, to place millions of recycling carts on American curbs. In the fall of 2017 at the joint SWANA/ISWA conference in Baltimore, presenters warned that by 2050, plastic waste will outweigh fish in our oceans. In response, the New Plastics Economy and other efforts by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have solicited millions of dollars in pledges from international corporations to re-engineer their products and packaging for greater recoverability and recyclability. In October, the New Plastics Economy announced a Global Commitment document had been signed by 290 organizations, including companies that are responsible for 20 percent of all plastic packaging produced globally, pledging to put an emphasis on creating more easily recycled packaging.

All the changes of the past year beg the question of what we will be focused on this time next year. I hope we’ll be lauding the fact that the domestic demand for recovered materials is growing, watching eagerly to see how the original curbside programs have evolved to serve their customers, and celebrating corporate commitments to making products and packaging less impactful on the environment.

I believe we will.