WEST CHESTER—With Christmas over, those holiday packing materials are winding up in local recycling centers.
But recycling, which used to be extremely profitable while aiding the environment, is facing challenges on a number of fronts. Local recyclers are struggling to cope with increasing financial pressures involving plunging prices for recycled materials, higher trucking costs, increased difficulties with consumers sorting trash, and concerns about President Donald Trump’s tariff wars.
“The value of (recyclable materials) has dropped sharply over the past few months,” said Frank Chimera, senior manager of Republic Services, which services Chester County and is seeing an increase of 20 percent in recycling demand over the holidays. “China, who was the world’s largest consumer of recycled materials, has all but stopped accepting those materials.”
China, which used to import more than $5.6 billion worth of recyclables from the U.S., is now refusing to take any recycled materials from this country. It has had a huge impact on markets globally as well as in the U.S., forcing down prices for recycled paper, plastic and other materials.
The fallout? Consumers will be paying more – a lot more – for recycling.
Chimera said that the average recycling customer regardless of hauler is paying between $1.50 to $4 per month more than they had earlier this year, while trash costs on the consumer side have seen no significant change. And the costs will continue to increase drastically in 2019, Chimera predicts.
“It appears the China market will just not change all that drastically,” Chimera said.
Compounding the problem is that many people try to recycle all kinds of things that simply can’t be recycled with current technology. Some companies are sending tons of un-recyclable materials to an incinerator every week. Chimera said recycling rate hikes could be averted if consumers properly disposed of recycling. At Republic, about 30 percent of all recycling it gets must be disposed of because it is contaminated. Republic must then pay to sort it out and haul it to a landfill.
“There’s a significant cost of (consumers) doing it wrong,” Chimera said. “If recycling (products are) not sold, it goes to the trash because it’s contaminated, not adding the cost of getting it to the landfill. The most common contaminant we see is plastic bags.”
Those bags that are popular at retail stores and grocery stores are not only a huge threat to the environment, Chimera says they add to the firm’s costs of disposing them.
Single-use plastic bags are one of the biggest issues for recycling operations. The bags, which many communities are now considering banning for charging fees for, tangle and jam equipment designed to sort out paper, glass cardboard and aluminum.
But experts say people throw lots of other un-recyclable things in recycling bins including Styrofoam, soiled cardboard like used pizza boxes, wax paper, soiled napkins, pet food bags, dryer sheets, shredded paper in plastic bags, garden hoses, plastic straws, zip lock bags, bubble wrap, cereal box bags and all kinds of construction waste. Consumers who do this only cost recycling firms money, and that cost gets passed back to them in the form of rate hikes.
“The solution is we need to do a better job of preparing our recyclables here,” Chimera said. “Reduce the number of non-recyclable items that we put into the container and reduce the number of containments we put into the container. We see food waste in recycling containers, which just de-values the materials.”
Revenue is no longer strong enough from the value of the recycled material, so now revenue has to be generated from the point of service, Chimera said. It’s simply not the revenue-generator it was just a few years ago, when recyclers got $40 a ton for egg cartons, and today must pay $15 a ton just to get rid of it.
Additionally, the Trump administration’s trade wars with China and other potential recycling-import nations is also now hurting aluminum prices for recycled cans.
To some degree, consumers who dispose properly of recycled materials can help stem the tide. Chimera said that involves three rule: Know what to throw out, clean and dry the recyclables, and keep them loose.
“Many of us want to be better recyclers during the holidays, but we aren’t sure how or just don’t have the time,” said Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services. With a few simple steps, we can all do 9our part to make environmentally responsible choices throughout the holiday season and help make a positive impact in our community for generations to come.”