By Cheryl Ma and Ryan Haug
The post-consumption market has been shaken up considerably over the past year or so. Rising residential waste, falling commercial waste, the increase in single-use waste, and the decrease in material processing operations, are all a result of the ongoing pandemic. These sudden changes are causing inefficiencies in the market and are putting a unique strain on the recycling and composting industry. Additionally, deflated oil prices and the impacts of China’s trade policies on accepting recyclables are significant global factors that must be taken into consideration when looking at the new face of the post-consumption market.
Increased Residential Post-Consumer Waste Over Commercial Waste
As the pandemic forced many out of offices, schools, and businesses and into our respective homes, the country saw a dramatic shift in the waste management needs of commercial and residential sectors. The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) observed a 20 percent increase in residential waste at the start of the pandemic and a 5-10 percent increase by December 2020. Meanwhile, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) noted that “industrial and commercial waste production has fallen drastically due to the slowdown in manufacturing activity”.
While less commercial activity reduced waste in some areas, the same study notes that, “the volume of medical waste has increased by up to 40 percent”. Countries around the globe are struggling to develop strategies and infrastructure to deal with this increase in medical waste. A similar study found that an average of 38.9 percent of medical waste was segregated for proper management and plastic materials made up approximately 35 percent of medical waste globally—creating an opportunity for sustainable resource recovery and recycling. One of the more important aspects of medical waste management, that often gets overlooked, is the danger it presents to waste management workers. The same study found that only 41 percent of workers were trained on how to safely service medical waste disposal, a concerning statistic as these workers are at increased risk of infection and injury when handling this type of waste.
Increase in Single-Use Waste & a Decrease in Processing Operations
The waste recovery industry has also had to deal with inefficiencies in its functioning as a result of the pandemic. Specifically, single waste plastics and single-use products are being consumed at a higher rate than before. This is happening in conjunction with slower processing operation speeds during times of lockdowns and distanced working. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) estimates that, “the U.S. created an entire year’s worth of medical waste in just two months of the pandemic, primarily due to greater use of disposable plastic gloves, masks, and gowns. Moreover, many believe single-use plastic consumption has been elevated due to heightened hygiene concerns and increased demand for household products, online orders, and takeout dining.” Meanwhile, “Nearly 150 recycling programs in the U.S. were temporarily suspended and many were cut altogether due to COVID-19”.
Falling Oil Prices & Post-Consumer Plastics Markets
Whether a plastic waste item will actually be recycled is dependent on whether waste companies can make a profit off of it. Because recycled plastics must compete with virgin plastics for use in new products, crude oil prices play a significant role in the recycled plastics industry. Since 2015, crude oil prices have dropped significantly as a result of increased domestic production by the United States and decreased demand for oil worldwide. As crude oil prices fall, so too does the price of recycled plastic. Companies around the world have increasingly shifted toward procuring virgin plastics for supply at the expense of recycled plastics—greatly decreasing the profitability of plastic recycling.
China’s “National Sword” Policy Preventing US Waste Exports
China’s “National Sword” Policy has also had a significant impact on domestic recycling in the United States. The policy, passed in 2017, “banned the importation of certain types of solid waste, as well as set strict contamination limits on recyclable materials”. Prior to the policy’s announcement in 2017, China was the largest importer of recyclables from the United States, importing 4.5 billion pounds of US scrap plastic in 2015. Since then, total scrap plastic exports have decreased nearly 70 percent. As a result of this falling demand, recyclable waste has been piling up in MRFs (material recovery facilities) across the country. Rather than shipping away our waste and recycling problems, the US is now forced to address its own issues with waste volume and contamination in recycling.
While some of these concerning trends may be addressed at least in part by our transition back to a post-pandemic world, it’s clear that there are several other rising trends that pose more serious and long-term hurdles to the post-consumption industry and sustainability efforts as a whole.