For most, recycling is the simple act of placing an item in a recycling bin. But an effective recycling model to — one that is economically and environmentally sustainable — is built upon a multi-dimensional process that must be viewed from all sides.
It’s important to recycle the right things, such as cardboard, that offer the most opportunity for GHG emissions reduction.
Effective recycling starts with committed, well-informed communities that have the wherewithal to prioritize recycling right as part of daily life.
Recycled objects must be collected by service providers who depend on a profitable business model to support their operations today and invest in new technology solutions for tomorrow.
Recycling results in a supply of raw manufacturing materials that are sold into global commodity markets.
Sustainable markets are built on a healthy balance of supply and demand, which requires purchases from end users and markets.
Recycling comes full circle when finished goods made from recycled materials are purchased, setting the cycle in motion once again.
As North America’s leading post-consumer recycler, Waste Management has been leading change in the ever-growing and dynamic recycling industry for more than three decades. During this period, we’ve also invested more than $1 billion in processing infrastructure alone, including almost $22 million in 2017, up more than $13 million year-over-year. This leadership resulted in 15.3 million tons of recycled goods in 2017, a 91.25 percent increase in recycling tons since 2007.
Our industry and the materials recycled have evolved significantly over the years — from small collection bins full of newspapers and glass bottles in the 1980s to today’s large wheeled carts full of plastic water bottles and cardboard boxes used for home delivery of online orders. What amazing changes in just a few decades!
We were presented with a new set of challenges in 2017. In July, China notified the World Trade Organization of its intent to ban the import of 24 materials, including mixed waste paper and mixed plastics. While the news was met with skepticism at the time, China has indeed followed through with the ban, resulting in 13.2 million tons of material looking for alternative markets across the globe.
Then, in March 2018, the Chinese government implemented a 0.5 percent contamination limit, which has elevated quality expectations for all buyers across the globe. The new contamination limit also increased recycling processing costs in material recovery facilities (MRFs) as recyclers work to remove unacceptable items. With the Chinese government’s subsequent announcement of a ban on all imports of recyclables by 2020, the global recycling community began to scramble to adjust to this new market reality.
Changing Market Dynamics
In an already dynamic recycling market, China’s policy created perhaps the greatest change the recycling industry has experienced to date. The Chinese government’s decision serves as a stark reminder of the global nature of our business. According to the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. International Trade Commission, China imported over 13.2 million tons of paper and approximately 776,000 tons of plastic from the U.S. in 2017. Prior to late 2017, a third of the world’s recyclables had been imported by China, including more than 50 percent of the paper and plastics recycled across the globe.
China’s policies have had a far-reaching effect, creating an excess global supply of recyclables. Costs are up for customers due to increased processing and sorting of materials required to meet China’s new stringent quality requirements, while commodity values are down.
Developing Alternative Commodities Markets
With China taking bold steps to rebalance its economic needs with quality of life — clean air, water and a safe climate, the U.S. recycling industry has been forced to recalibrate its thinking and focus on what it can control. Developing diverse domestic and global end markets is the best way to ensure long-term successful, sustainable and economically viable recycling programs.
Beginning in 2013, with China’s first import restrictions on plastics, Waste Management began to diversify our markets, sending more plastics to domestic markets and more paper to India, Mexico, South America and other countries. In the five years since, we have grown our markets and strengthened our international commodities team. With more than 50 contractors in four offices around the world, including Mexico City, Mexico, Shanghai, China, and Bhopal, India, we have been able to develop a robust international trade business.
Using Life Cycle Thinking to Prioritize Recycling Efforts
With constrained resources and weakened market demand, evaluating recycling through the lens of life cycle thinking helps our customers grapple with a changing commodities market for recycling, helping to prioritize their efforts. It’s imperative that we remain focused on the materials that provide the most environmental benefit from recycling. As an example, the reduction in GHG emissions from recycling an aluminum can is exponentially more than recycling a glass bottle.
The Greater Environmental Impact
Waste Tons vs. GHG Emissions Reduction
Focusing only on commodity tonnage misses the bigger picture — how much emissions reduction benefit has been achieved regardless of the tons processed. For example, GHG emissions achieved by recycling Old Corrugated Cardboard is far greater than its weight would suggest. Our data makes it abundantly clear that we should be focusing our efforts on recycling cardboard and paper first, then, metal, PET and HDPE bottles to maximize the environmental benefits of the materials that we manage.