Recycling markets were upended in 2017 when China, as part of an anti-pollution crackdown, announced it would stop importing most used plastic and paper. One reason for the crackdown: too many imported recyclables were contaminated, sometimes with hazardous substances like lead and mercury. The decision sent prices of scrap plastic and recovered paper tumbling, creating a crisis for municipalities that had relied such sales to subsidize curbside recycling. In the U.S., the average price of used corrugated cardboard fell 36 percent. It hasn’t been easy to find other takers for used plastic, since lower oil prices have made virgin plastic cheaper than recycled plastic. While other nations like India and Vietnam have been importing more recyclables, they don’t come close to handling the amount China once did. And few industrial nations have enough capacity to recycle all the material on their own. Some communities are running out of room to store the mounting stockpiles and have stopped collecting plastic, paper products or glass. Some places in Australia and Canada have sent existing piles to landfills or burned them. At the same time, under pressure from consumers, several well-known companies have pledged to use more recycled and biodegradable goods. In 2018 companies including Coca-Cola, Unilever and Walmart said they’ll aim to use packaging that is 100 percent reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
Impacts in Colorado
Colorado regulations require material recovery facilities (MRFs) to meet a 75% minimum material-turnover rate. Waivers from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) would be needed to change that or stockpile material. The agency has touted an existing infrastructure grant program as one way its helping to respond.
Market challenges were a primary topic at the Colorado Association for Recycling’s Summit for Recycling conference in June, where multiple working groups were formed to outline specific solutions over the next year. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee for governor, also spoke about how the state needs to modernize its recycling infrastructure.
- Denver’s local MRF operator, Waste Management, slowed processing speeds to the point that it was operating at 60% capacity to help with quality control, according to an Aspen Public Radio series. (March 2018)
- Alpine Recycling Vice President Brent Hildebrand said China’s import shutdown in May temporarily forced material into new markets such as South Korea and Mexico, as reported by CGTN. The Colorado Springs Independent reports that mixed paper has piled up as efforts continue to cultivate new long-term markets. (June-July 2018)
- Boulder County’s MRF, operated by Eco-Cycle, became an increasingly popular option for others to send their material to. The facility’s newer plastic sorting equipment, and longstanding relationships with domestic buyers, meant it can get more value for its bales than many others according to Colorado Public Radio.The Daily Camera reports that an additional 2,500 tons have come through in recent months as a result. (July 2018)
- The Durango Telegraph begins a two-part series on market effects in the area. Friedman Recycling says it now uses alternate markets in countries such as Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Mexico and Brazil. The company is also currently sitting on mixed plastic. While no policy changes are planned at this time, the piece hints they could be coming. (July 2018)
Changes and Solutions
- Durango officials voted to approve a new $2.69 monthly surcharge for residential recycling, effective in July. The city would have otherwise faced a $180,000 budget shortfall after Friedman Recycling raised prices by $25 per ton, according to The Durango Herald. (May 2018)
- The Larimer County Recycling Center, which serves cities such as Fort Collins and Loveland, essentially stopped recycling plastics #3, 6, 7 due to a lack of markets, according to the Coloradoan. (May 2018)
Clean material absolutely has a market.
- CAFR’s Northern Colorado Council is putting a consumer campaign together to educate users about contamination and what can still be recycled.
End markets are our best bet for keeping material out of landfills.
- Right now a CAFR work group is working on a materials platform, which is intended to identify materials available in Colorado to recycle and who can use that material in a process.
- CDPHE’s and Recycling Resources Economic Opportunity grant program is working with RRS to development a business incubator to create end markets in Colorado.
Reproduced from the presentation “Recycling: The real answers” at CAFR’s 2018 Annual Meeting September 11 in Lafayette.