By John Dorschner
One of the top recycling experts in America has two pieces of good news for those of us who want to help the planet:
(1) Prices of most recyclables, which had been devastated by the Chinese withdrawal several years ago, have rebounded during the pandemic. That’s important because it gives recycling companies more of an incentive to find ways to get material.
(2) Technologies to improve single-stream recycling are soaring ahead that can greatly benefit the sometimes sloppy system that dominates most of North America.
The not-so-good news: A lot of folks, even conscientious ones, mess up in their recycling, and there’s plenty of room for improvement.
So said Chaz Miller in a telephone interview. Miller started his half-century career as in the resource recovery section of the Environmental Protection Agency. He’s been head of a major recycling trade association and a long-time columnist on the subject. The National Recycling Coalition recently bestowed him with a Lifetime Achievement Award for being an “invaluable national advocate for recycling.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Miller talked also about alternatives to our present system, what we can do better, how the rest of the world handles — and the fact that the rest of the country shares South Florida’s problem of how to recycle glass.
RECYCLING IS LIKE A CAKE
Miller suggests that we think of curbside recycling economics as a cake:
“Fifty-five to 65 percent of what people put out for curbside is paper,” he said, meaning all its variants, including cardboard. “Right now, that has a very substantial value. Then there the other two valuables — PET [plastic] bottles mostly and aluminum.”
In terms of weight, “paper is the basic substance of the cake. Aluminum and PET are the icing on the cake.”
To put it in perspective, he said, consider that old cardboard boxes [OCC in industry-talk) are now getting about $150 a ton in the Southeast, with residential mixed paper [which is what comes out of Miami area recycling plants] getting about $106 a ton.
PET meanwhile is about 37 cents a pound, and aluminum is $1.24 a pound. Miller notes that the industry measures paper by the ton, whereas other recyclables are generally by the pound. At those rates, plastic bottles would be $740 a ton and aluminum $2480 a ton — dwarfing the value of paper.
CHINA: “CONVENIENT ANSWER TO INCONVENIENT TRUTH”
For a long time, China bolstered prices in recycling. Huge cargo ships had brought goods to America and then, rather than return empty, they filled with recyclables. According to United Nations Comtrade data, China imported 42 percent of global plastic and 40 percent of waste paper until about five years ago.
Then China announced it was getting too much contaminated material. It said it no longer wanted to be the “world’s garbage dump.” In 2018, the country reduced its recycling imports dramatically. Prices plummeted.
Some observers thought that China was hitting back at the United States in the midst of the Trump trade war bruhaha. “It’s utter nonsense that we were shipping garbage to China,” Miller said.
Still, some experts used the China change as a wakeup call. “China was the convenient answer to an inconvenient question,” wrote Antonis Mavropoulos, president of the International Solid Waste Association. “For the recycling industry, the question was, and still is, how to find end-users for a continuously increasing stream of recyclable materials. The difficulty is that, as we have learnt, the more the recyclables we collect the less their purity and the worse their quality. China, as the global hub for recyclable materials, provided an easy answer for some time.
“For at least two decades, it was receiving recyclables, especially plastics, with high impurities. Most of the recyclables that were shipped to China were not suitable for other regional and local end-users, in USA, EU and Australia due to their low-quality. However, this was a win-win situation. The western world was able build high recycling rates, ignoring the quality problems involved, and China received cheap, low-end materials that were further processed or used as a cheap fuel, with vast environmental impacts in both cases. China’s ban brings us back to reality.”
TARGET HIGH QUALITY RECYCLABLES
The solution, Mavropoulos wrote in a blog, is to target “high-quality recyclables. This does not always mean higher recycling rates, although in many cases this is definitely part of the job. In some cases, it means that we should work hard to ‘purify’ further the existing recycling activities to make them more viable…. It will take us a transit period of 2–4 years, but there is no doubt that sooner or later, there will be a way to deal with the problem with minimum environmental impacts.”
What he meant was that consumers needed to recycle smarter and provide less contaminated material.
Indeed, there was a four-year transit period, but not exactly in the way that Mavropoulos envisioned.
This month, RecyclingMarkets.net reported how prices continued to surge, with PET containers (#1 plastic bottles) up 24 percent and aluminum cans up 25 percent over the month before. Recycled plastic bottles are now selling for three times what they were a year ago. Aluminum has doubled in the past year. Mixed paper has more than doubled in the past year. Cardboard has gone from $82 to $134 a ton in the past year, the website reported.
The pandemic is responsible for quite a bit of the increases, Miller said. People were ordering more online, which meant more cardboard — and more need for recycled cardboard. Also, the pandemic interrupted supply chains, making some materials more difficult to get, sending the prices up.
Meanwhile, recycling companies are more interested in investing in equipment that will result in higher-quality recyclables.
“STUNNING” CHANGES IN RECYCLING TECHNOLOGY
Miller pointed to a Winnipeg, Canada, state-of-the art recycling processing center that he visited. “The technology to clean up recyclables just keeps evolving. It’s stunning the changes in the last decade. Optical sorters are very important.”
These sorters can distinguish different materials and send them off to separate bins. Robotic arms now can select items of different sizes and sort them. “And particularly artificial intelligence,” operating machines that learn to distinguish between materials. In another five years, there may be far more advances, Miller said he was told.
“You’re never going to totally replace people,” Miller said, but as systems evolve, workers will be used “for more sophisticated, more highly skilled jobs.”
The Winnipeg facility has seven optical sorters (Some U.S. facilities often have just one or two.) The equipment, made by Canada-based MachineX, isn’t cheap. Each sorter can run more than $500,000, but the automated system allows the city to be much more accurate in separating materials — and handling more types of plastic than many U.S. centers, such as food containers, plastic tubs and types of rigid plastic that are not recycled in South Florida processing centers.
The Winnipeg facility boasts an “advanced glass separation system,” but Miller says that glass remains a challenge in most places. In the Miami area, for example, recycled glass is transported almost 200 miles to a plant in Sarasota.
“Glass is more difficult because it breaks,” Miller said. “And it comes in three colors — green and brown and clear.” They’re more valuable separated by color, but in many single-stream systems they get mixed together, making them worth considerably less.
What’s more, the basic materials of glass “are common and relatively inexpensive,” meaning there’s not much difference in the cost of new material versus recycled. “Optical sorters to separate glass keeping better, but glass is always going to be a problem,” Miller said.
Some other countries are more exacting than America in recycling. The Japanese village where residents separate materials into 30-some bins is an outlier, Miller said, but he recalled that Tokyo requires material separated into three bins.
“The Germans and the Swiss and the Japanese have a very strong recycling ethic,” with strict requirements. In Germany, for example, you have to put your bin out at a certain time and retrieve it by a certain time. “You can’t leave it out all day.” And if neighbors see violations, they report them.
“That would never fly in America,” Miller said. Many Americans bristle anytime government require them to something.
DUAL SYSTEM GIVES “VERY CLEAN PAPER”
Still, some U.S. places do dual stream. “I happen to live in one of them,” Miller said. Montgomery County, Maryland, a Washington suburb, separates paper products from other material “That gives you very clean paper,” because it doesn’t get contaminated by the moisture and food particles often found in other materials.” New York City also uses dual stream.
“It costs a little more,” Miller said, because the collection trucks must have two receptacles, but it delivers improved quality. Still, the trade-off is that “you get a little higher participation off with single-stream.” The simpler the process, the more people are likely to use it.
Miller is adamant that we can do better. As he told Waste360.com, “We had a lot of crap in the recycling bin because people are in a hurry. They didn’t take the time to do it…. I wish I could say that the public has gotten better recycling over the last 50 years. In terms of quantity, absolutely. In terms of quality, there are still issues.”
For more on the specific do’s and don’ts of recycling, see my post: http://miamiwebnews.blogspot.com/p/the-real-dos-and-donts-of-recycling.html