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Recycling: Hang Together or Hang Separately

Shared solitudeReports of the death of recycling are greatly exaggerated. There is great chaos under heaven and the situation is excellent. Crisis equals opportunity. The oxen are slow, but the earth is patient. The only good recyclable is a dead recyclable.

Wait, what?

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog talking about the current crisis in recycling that has been years in the making. That article was followed by an excellent analysis by Jim Thompson of Waste Business Journal about the developing dearth of disposal capacity, particularly in the Northeast, but sounding the alarm in most portions of the country. To clarify: we are not technically running out of actual land for disposal. Impending disposal capacity issues are more related to BANANA syndrome- Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. The expansion of existing facilities involves years of permitting, if you can actually obtain one. As demand runs into supply, the diminishing capacity makes the available capacity more expensive as air space in a landfill or burn space in an incinerator means prime pricing for the suppliers. This normally bodes well for recycling markets and prices paid for commodities, but recycling has its own crisis with plenty of supply, but changing demand.

Years ago, the co-chair of SWEEP, Rob Watson, who also happens to be my brother, and I went on an epic hike in Kings Canyon, California on our way to Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States. One day into the hike Rob told me he wanted to introduce me to a concept called “shared solitude” whereby, because of our different hiking paces, we would hike separately and meet for lunch and after lunch at our evening campsite.

Wait, what?

It all worked out, but if I had to do it again I would have been more insistent about strength in numbers and that finding common ground on our hiking pace would be a preferred option.

I mention shared solitude because literally every municipality that operates a recycling program in the United States is experiencing their own version of shared solitude. We all share a problem: looming disposal capacity and collapsing recycling markets, but we are trying to address the issues considering our own unique circumstances. In my community, Keene, NH, for example the solid waste program operates as a special revenue fund. No tax dollars support the solid waste program. Revenues are derived through tipping fees for disposal and sale of recycling commodities. It’s easy enough to raise prices on items requiring disposal, but my $400,000 budget for commodity sales is looking increasingly tenuous and some difficult conversations with City leaders is likely to take place over the coming months.

The China crisis basics are three-fold. First, China has literally shut the door on imports of recyclables (in part due to a glut of off-specification material that was included in many of the loads), and second the cost of transporting materials to other markets has effectively doubled because the container ships used to offload products at our ports, then filled up with recyclables for the ride back to China. Using emerging markets like the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, etc. usually means one leg of the trip (bringing products into this country) is empty and that means dramatically higher transportation costs. Lastly, China represented half to two-thirds of all demand for recovered material, an appetite for the recyclables that simply cannot be matched by any other combination of countries.

So instead of wandering around in “shared solitude,” hoping China changes its mind (and believe me when I tell you that China holds most of the cards and can wait out this crisis much better than we can), we should focus instead on the shared purpose of ensuring that what commodities we do process are of the highest quality.

When boiled down to its basics, recycling depends on the ability to supply alternative material for manufacturing, which means that we principally compete with virgin material.   If a paper mill anywhere in the world wants to make a product they are going to look at whether they can get a better deal on raw material from a recycled product or if they need to source their material from extraction of resources. The United States has gotten complacent, and either through willful subterfuge- getting away with dumping off-spec material to a country that wasn’t putting a premium on enforcing standards, or relying on mythical recycling fairies and gnomes to take products that have no realistic hope of being recycled and thinking because it’s gone away that the problem has been solved.

Recycling is far from dead, but it’s going to take a while for it to find a new equilibrium, and communities are going to have to break out of the shared solitude approach and tackle some of the underlying issues that brought us to this point. While it is true that literally everything is recyclable in some fashion, it does require a critical mass to make the economics work. Current economics make it clear which commodities can find new life under the new normal, and which will require disposal. And, as more products end up being disposed, our current recycling problems accelerate the disposal capacity crisis and forces re-thinking about how to value our discards.

No, recycling is not dead, it’s been sleeping and it’s time to wake up and focus on quality as we set the table for expanding recycling. I’ve heard of a Chinese curse disguised as a blessing that wishes, “may you live an interesting life”. When it comes to recycling and disposal we’re getting the “interesting” part in spades. In “shared solitude” the curse may come true, but together we can unlock the hidden blessing.

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