Where Exactly Is Your Recycling Going?
Matt Stalsberg is a veteran, self-described trash man. But after 15 years of running Ace Recycling and Disposal, Stalsberg says the future of the industry has never been more uncertain.
In late October, the word had just come out that prices for cardboard were about to drop another 40 percent. “That kind of drop hasn’t happened since the beginning of the year, and everyone thought it was going to rebound,” Stalsberg says. “If you have a clean load of cardboard—like from a restaurant—they’re not worth any money right now, and in the future, they’re looking to charge you to take that, because they have to bale it, and their cost to bale it is more than it’s worth.
“This is, no question, the absolute worst time to be in the recycling business.”
There is no lack of interest in recycling among Utah residents. If anything, Stalsberg hauls more recyclable materials each month than the last. But finding a place to drop off the recycling for processing, and eventual resale, is increasingly difficult.
The vast majority of recycling collected in Utah, throughout the US, and most of the world, was once shipped for processing in China, where low labor costs, lax environmental regulations, and high demand for raw materials made recycling a profitable venture. But in early 2018, China announced that it was closing its doors to all but about 1 percent of the waste stream it once absorbed.
That much, the industry saw coming, according to Lance Allen, who worked in private sector recycling for nearly 30 years before becoming the director of waste and recycling for Salt Lake City. But nearly two years later, what has taken some industry leaders by surprise is the lack of any noticeable rebound. Prices for recycling, Stalsberg says, continue to fall, changing the economics of an entire industry: where recyclable waste was once a commodity to be sold, processors and collectors like Ace may soon have to charge Utah cities and businesses for recycling services.
Yet there may still be a light at the end of this tunnel. Multiple companies—established and startups alike—are building new recycling facilities in Utah and throughout the nation, sensing that change will bring with it new opportunity. Recycling companies must still find a way to convince residents to clean up their recycling game, but if they can, it may be possible to bring the recycling industry back home.
What happens to our recycling?
Ace Recycling services 13 cities, or about 520,000 homes and businesses, on the Wasatch Front and in Wyoming. Within that area, Stalsberg says, they typically haul about 3,000 tons of recycling each month.
Because the majority of Utah’s residential recycling is “mixed stream” recycling—meaning residents place all their recyclable materials in one bin—Ace takes this recycling to processing centers owned by companies such as Rocky Mountain Recycling and Waste Management to be cleaned and sorted. From there, pallets of paper or barrels of aluminum are sold as commodities to be remade into new products.
This is where China comes in. High-dollar items like aluminum and steel have always stayed in the US, according to Allen, because the price of the raw material justified the relatively high cost of sorting and cleaning these commodities in the US. But the value of less-desirable materials, especially low-grade plastics and paper, made it difficult to find domestic homes for them. High levels of contamination—the industry term for when a bin of recycling contains materials that can’t be reused—meant sorting and cleaning plastic could cost even more, resulting in even thinner profit margins.
Paper is a particular problem; it represents 30 percent of Salt Lake City’s recycling stream, according to Allen, and while it may be the most widely recycled commodity, even the slightest amount of contamination can render it worthless. If, for example, a resident tosses some old office papers in a recycling bin, and later throws in a half-empty gallon of milk, the milk might spill out and saturate the paper. The soaked paper can no longer be recycled.
China was among the few outlets for paper due to high levels of contamination. But it’s a misnomer that China actually needed this contaminated waste, Allen says. What’s more likely, according to multiple reports, is that loose environmental regulations allowed Chinese recyclers to import vast quantities of waste, pick through what they actually wanted, and then dump the rest in canyons and cornfields. As China tightened its environmental rules, appetite for the US’ trash vanished, and so did the US appetite for paper recycling.
Paper-thin and increasingly bright red profit margins have led many area recyclers to stop accepting paper recycling entirely. As a result, prices for most recyclable materials, especially paper and fiber, are at 25 year lows, according to Mark Snedecor, who oversees Waste Management’s Utah operations.
“People have seen this coming for years,” Allen says. “All of us in the industry knew that they were not being recycled, and that it was a problem. If entities didn’t take steps to mitigate the risks and prepare for what ultimately occurred—even though it was much more drastic than anybody foresaw—you had your head in the sand.”
Prepared or not, the fact that the industry recovery has taken longer than anyone expected has put financial pressure on the recycling industry’s middle men: trash collectors, and the processing facilities that sort and sell mixed-stream recycling.
“The biggest impact really is the volatility, the uncertainty each month, of how much the market is going to move, and how much we have to adjust our pricing,” Stalsberg says. Mixed recycling that must be sorted following delivery has become “the stepchild that no one wants to talk about. It’s so bleak, and all it does is accompany a conversation that usually requires me asking for more money.”
The volatility, Allen says, will likely result in increased costs to residents. Although Salt Lake City hasn’t increased trash collection fees in nearly six years, he says the city is currently considering a rate hike. Over the last 6-8 years, the city made more money off the recycling program than it spent. With that set to change, coupled with rising fuel and labor costs, he says the city may have no choice but to charge residents more to pick up their recycling.
What is actually recyclable?
Geopolitical circumstances aside, whether or not Salt Lake City faces increased waste handling fees may be determined by the residents themselves.
“Right now we know that if anything goes into the processing centers that is highly contaminated, it costs more, and that ultimately affects the city and its residents,” he says. South Salt Lake City, along with other Utah entities, has begun to reeducate consumers about what, exactly, belongs in the blue recycling bin.
Among the problems the industry must now grapple with, Allen says, is residents’ desire to recycle, well, everything in order to feel as though they made a difference—a phenomenon known to the waste industry as “wishcycling.”
The reality, Allen says, is that only 60-70 percent of the waste a typical resident produces can actually be recycled. While contaminated paper represents the bulk of unrecyclable waste, it’s not the only problem. Yard and food waste, wood, textiles, plastic films—while some of these can be used in other ways, they don’t belong in mixed stream recycling, Snedecor says.
Believe it or not, he says, “we don’t want your dirty diapers.”
When something does fall through the cracks, Snedecor says, it can wreak havoc on robotic sorting lines and raise costs for recycling companies—and eventually downstream users. For example, Wells explains, a filmy plastic bag—the kind you might pick up in a grocery store—is too small to be caught by an automated sorting system. If it gets through, it can wrap itself around the machinery and ultimately clog it, forcing the facility to shut down while “people have to climb in and cut the plastic out,” she says. “The more time shut down, the higher the cost.”
Recycling is important, but it’s only part of the solution, says Ericka Wells, executive director at the Utah Recycling Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on consumer education.
“We will likely always need landfills,” she says. “But there is a lot that can be done to reduce the resources that are headed there. Everyone talks about recycling, but the original idea was ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.’”
Progress, she says, starts with reducing overall consumption rates. This can mean anything from learning how to fix broken electronics and appliances, to using refillable coffee cups and glass leftover containers.
When products can’t be reused, Allen says, purchasing habits can still make a difference. Packaging that involves tape, stables, or moist paper or cardboard can’t be recycled. An aluminum can or glass bottle, however, can. The fewer materials involved in the product’s packaging, the easier the packaging is to recycle.
“As consumers, everyone asks how to be a better recycler,” Snedecor says. “I always say, make better choices about purchases. The sad thing you see is a mom and a couple of kids, and it’s so easy to get foil-packed foods as opposed to bulkier bottles. So she buys the foil ones, and to make herself feel better, she’ll put them in the blue bin and hope they get recycled.”
But the foil wrappers, Snedecor says, are usually lined with paper or other porous materials that can’t be recycled after they come into contact with food. A glass bottle, on the other hand, is highly recyclable. “It’s just about changing a little bit of the dynamic going into it,” he says. “because you have convenience, and then you have sustainable options.”
Many businesses have tried to alleviate this tension by making better choices themselves, Snedecor says. Soft drink companies, for example, are beginning to move away from low-grade plastic bottles and toward aluminum cans, which command a higher price for recycling companies. As a result of these efforts, Allen says, Salt Lake City has seen a drop in the overall amount of recycling the city collects.
However, the amount of contaminated recycling they pick up has dropped from 20 percent in previous years to 11-12 percent, increasing the overall amount of material that actually gets recycled.
What companies are doing to salvage our trash
With residents now cleaning up their act, and with the loss of competition from China’s rock-bottom price points, domestic recycling companies have begun to expand their operations and investing in new technologies.
In March, Waste Management announced plans to expand Salt Lake City recycling operations with a new, larger materials recovery facility to be built by early 2020. The $16 million, 50,000-square-foot facility will be capable of processing and sorting 700 tons of materials per day. Waste Management currently processes 750 tons of recycling per month at its existing Salt Lake City facility.
Industry newcomer Crossroads Paper has also announced plans to build a new paper mill in Salt Lake City within the next 2-3 years.
Local businesses that haven’t, traditionally, been considered part of the recycling industry are also getting in on the game. Allen says some of Salt Lake’s plastics are used by a cement kiln to fuel their operations. And the ashes, he says, are used to make the concrete so that 100 percent of the plastic input into the process is reused.
Because it does produce emissions, Allen says, the cement kiln “probably isn’t the highest and best use” of the plastics. “But it’s better than going to a landfill.”
All this domestic growth has already made a difference in preventing recyclable materials from ending up in landfills. In 2018, the US recycled a record 68.1 percent of the nation’s paper products, according to the American Forest and Paper Association. Industry press attributed the increase to the growth of domestic paper mills and to the growth in general of the use of recycled paper. Brian Hawkinson, executive director at the American Forest and Paper Association, said the industry now hopes to exceed a 70 percent recovery rate by the end of 2020.
Technology is also playing a role in the return of recycling to the US, Snedecor says. Instead of human sorters—the best of whom can sort perhaps 50 items per minute—recycling processors like Waste Management increasingly use advanced robots capable of sorting 600 items every minute.
Keeping up with the rapid pace of technology can be difficult for US companies, but with China out of the picture, they finally have a financial incentive to invest. “For years, China said they’d take it and the domestic industries couldn’t compete,” Snedecor says. “Now domestic industries can financially compete, and you’re seeing innovation and capital investment in the US.”
But many of these new facilities are two, three, even five years out, Stalsberg says, and in the meanwhile, existing recycling facilities are becoming backlogged. In the meantime, he says, this may result in difficult—and potentially unpopular—decisions. “When I say that we should probably just throw paper away,” he says, “people look at me and say you’re just a trash guy, you don’t care. But on the flip side, it’s not worth anything.”
Stalsberg believes it may be time for the government to step in with funding to assist both in the education of residents who wish to recycle—perhaps a bit too much—and to provide incentives for recycling startups that will create new local markets. “The future of recycling is honestly pretty bleak, and it’s frustrating, for how much work we’ve all put into it for all these years, to be faced with these kinds of markets,” he says.
But while the industry may be in financial straits, Stalsberg isn’t throwing in the towel. Recycling, he says, is about more than profit margins. “As low-valued as it is right now, it’s hard to justify, but we’re trying to do something for the future.”