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The Circularity of Recycling
Hover over each section of the inner circle to reveal more information
1 Residential Home
Customers separate clean recyclables such as bottles, cans, paper and cardboard boxes before placing them in their recycling bins.
2 Recycling Collection
Where single-stream recycling is available, a WM collection truck picks up all these items in a single pass.
3 Materials Recovery Facility
At one of our MRFs, we use advanced technology, as well as manual sorting, to organize recyclables by type before packaging them into bales.
4 Materials Processing
Depending on material type, baled recyclables are processed into new forms, such as pulp, pellets or sheets, that prepare them to be made into new products.
5 Product Manufacturing
New goods are created with these materials, such as boxes made from post-consumer paper or carpets with fibers made from recycled plastics.
Consumers purchase products with packaging or other components that are made to be recycled.
Understanding the Recycling Market
After playing an important role in the global recycling market for over two decades, China implemented changes to its import policies announced in 2017 that have adversely affected market conditions for recycling. At that time, China notified the World Trade Organization of its intent to ban the import of 24 materials, including mixed paper and mixed plastics, resulting in 13.2 million tons of material that needed alternative markets across the globe.
Then, in early 2018, the Chinese government implemented a 0.5% contamination limit and banned all imports of recyclables by 2021. By banning materials, reducing import quotas and increasing quality specifications for all imports of recyclables, China’s policies created a ripple effect, impacting global supply and demand for recyclables while increasing materials recovery facility (MRF) operating costs. As the global recycling community has adjusted to this new reality, the result has been a redistribution of global market demand.
Commodity value impacts have been significant. Without China as an end-market, global supply has exceeded demand. By the end of 2019, commodity values were the lowest in over a decade, with the average commodity price for all recyclables sold from all our MRFs totaling roughly 70% less than the average two years prior. This resulted in increases to the cost of recycling for our customers, creating financial hardship for many municipalities.
There are, however, bright spots amid this period of shifting markets. For example, paper plays an important role in the health of our curbside recycling programs because cardboard and mixed paper make up almost 60% of the material processed at our single-stream MRFs. In 2019, there were several announcements of new domestic paper mills, and capacity began to come online by the end of the year. These mills are anticipated to have a stabilizing impact on paper markets in the U.S. Despite a downward trend in the value of recycled plastics due to low virgin resin prices, we saw the value of recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic spike for several months in 2019, buoyed by goals that producers and brands have established for plastics. This was a reminder of the important role that corporate commitments to using post-consumer resin can play in ensuring sustainable recycling markets.
Driving End-Market Demand
Manufacturers across the globe rely on recyclables from our MRFs as material inputs for their products. But significant opportunity remains to expand these markets further, and WM is looking for new ways to generate demand among customers and within our business. For example, we provide employee uniforms made from recycled PET, and as a signatory to the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) Demand Champion Program, we purchase residential collection carts made with 10% post-consumer resin (PCR). At the WM Phoenix Open, we regularly offer merchandise made with recycled products.
Demand from Our Customers
In 2018, plastic recycler KW Plastics asked us to consider adding polypropylene (PP) to our recycling programs. Polypropylene plastic is used in products like yogurt cups and its use is growing, creating a demand for post-consumer PP resin. After auditing our available recyclables, we agreed and began to separate PP from other materials for recycling, even adding optical sorters at several of our facilities to efficiently sort this material. KW Plastics now has a reliable stream of PP that can be recycled into products such as paint cans. With our new capacity to sort PP, other markets for the material have the chance to develop as well. Watch video.
Demand from Our Collection Business
WM purchases hundreds of thousands of residential curbside carts each year, which contain post-industrial recycled plastic. In 2019, we signed on to the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) Demand Champion Program and pledged to increase the use of post-consumer resin (PCR) in products we purchase, starting with our residential carts. WM teams from our supply chain, operations, marketing/branding and other functions collaborated with Cascade Cart Solutions to test the use of PCR in our residential carts, and purchase the resulting carts made with 10% PCR. Cascade’s Ecocarts are a first in our industry.
Demand from Major Events
The WM Phoenix Open (WMPO) and concurrent Sustainability Forum are great opportunities for us to showcase recycling’s potential. During the 2020 golf tournament, fans could purchase apparel made from Unifi’s Repreve recycled fibers produced from plastic bottles. One popular style was Loudmouth Golf’s “WMPO Party Pants,” made from Repreve fabric with 50% recycled content. The importance of end-markets for recycled goods was also a focus of 2019 and 2020 Forum presentations. During the 2020 Forum, we organized a Circular Economy Showcase where we highlighted 15 companies using post-consumer recycled content to produce new products.
Plastics in the Spotlight
As the leading environmental services provider in North America, WM has spent decades managing plastic for recycling markets and for disposal. Consumer trends, combined with constricting global markets, have placed our industry and company in the middle of the complex discussion of plastic waste and recycling. As we’ve embarked on our journey to better understand the many issues around plastic, we’ve developed our own knowledge base and perspectives, and have taken an active role in working with stakeholders along the supply chain to develop solutions for the complex challenges involved in managing plastic in a circular economy.
The same features that make plastic so convenient—including its durability, versatility and weight—also make it problematic to manage at end of life. Although it is lightweight, plastic can be expensive to process and transport. And the varied resin types that make plastic so versatile often confuse consumers because they cannot always be recycled. Plus, residual food or other products become contamination in the recycling process. In fact, only a small fraction of the plastic ever made has been recycled. And because it degrades so slowly, plastic that has not been recycled, or burned for energy, is still in the environment or in a landfill.
To address these challenges, WM has examined the types and amount of plastic in the waste and recycling stream. We have also compared plastic to other materials in the waste stream to understand their relative life cycle impacts.
This research, combined with current global market dynamics, suggests that our greatest opportunity lies in properly managing plastic to keep it out of the natural environment. When China banned imports, plastic from across the globe began to move to a variety of countries that are poorly equipped to handle the material, furthering the likelihood of more plastics entering rivers, waterways and oceans. That’s why WM focuses our efforts on recycling materials with responsible end-markets while educating consumers on what types of plastic can and cannot be recycled. All our residential plastic is recycled in North America.
WM does not weigh in on the value of using any specific packaging material; instead, we focus on the most responsible way to manage materials when our customers are finished with them. There is no doubt that nongovernmental organizations and shareholder advocates will continue to push for further corporate action around plastics. Late in 2019, shareholder advocates requested that WM complete a report on plastic recycling, which is available here. We will continue to focus on responsible management of plastics and other materials, including supporting the circular economy and development of new technologies that meet the needs of our customers while maximizing environmental benefits.
Improving Recycling Quality
To satisfy growing end-markets for recycled materials, we must ensure that the commodity products WM offers are high in quality—clean and dry. This is no small task. While individual and business behaviors have largely shifted to embrace recycling, many misconceptions remain around which materials can and cannot be recycled. Consumer misunderstandings, combined with the shift to cart-based, single-stream recycling, have led to high levels of contamination, or unacceptable items being mixed with recyclables.
For example, a major source of contamination is plastic grocery bags and bagged recyclables, which cannot be recycled when collected in curbside recycling programs, but are often placed in recycling bins. These bags become tangled in recycling equipment. When this happens—up to six times a day on average—operators are forced to stop processing lines to extract bags and other forms of contamination from MRF equipment. Clearing contamination material can result in significant lost time every day. The irony in consumers placing items like plastic bags in their bins, hoping they can be recycled, is that less recycling ends up taking place. We call this practice “wishcycling”—and it’s not just bags. WM facilities report a staggering variety of contaminants brought into MRFs, from holiday lights and garden hoses to tires and clothing.
Contamination is an ongoing challenge, but we are making steady progress to reduce and address it. Consumer education efforts have helped reduce contamination levels at our single stream facilities by 20% between 2018 and 2019. Learn more about how we educate consumers on the right way to recycle through our Recycle Right program. In addition to educating customers about the principles of correct recycling, we are making investments in multiple forms of technology and training within our collection and processing operations.
Textile Supply Chains
Trends in global manufacturing and consumer behavior have made textiles, mostly clothing, one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. waste stream. Few options exist for consumers to donate or recycle clothing, so it is often sent to landfills. As the largest post-consumer recycler in North America, it makes sense for WM to engage in initiatives to create a more circular supply chain for post-consumer textiles. Much like recycling of other materials, this depends on a high-quality recycled product and viable end-markets for recycled materials.
WM forms partnerships with a variety of organizations to leverage existing approaches to managing textile waste, while also creating new strategies based on advanced processing and recycling technologies and emerging supply chain collaborations. Here are a few ways we’re taking action:
- Joining EON’s CircularID Initiative, which will enable better sorting and grading of textiles
- Partnering with others developing new processes for recycling post-consumer fibers
- Creating consumer awareness by working with Slow Factory, a nonprofit that educates fashion designers on the need to consider clothing end-of-use
- Hosting sessions on textiles at the WM Sustainability Forum to better understand industry challenges
Working with a national retailer and a third-party supplier to repurpose 1 million retired uniforms into textile fiber that will be diverted into new products