Let’s be honest. The state of recycling in North America is poor. Commodity prices are down. Expenses are up. It takes a huge capital investment to build new recycling centers. And a lot of people don’t recycle properly.
In response to recycling’s economic woes, municipalities are adjusting their programs, companies have closed some recycling centers and mills are tightening standards dictating the quality of materials.
There are many sayings that are apropos to the current state of affairs for recycling:
- If it was easy, everyone would do it.
- When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
- If you’re going through hell, keep on going.
Indeed, recycling today is a challenge. Earlier this month, New York Times Magazine published an article entitled “The Reign of Recycling” in which the author advocated a position that recycling was an inefficient activity that was not necessary because there is ample space to dispose of waste. From a business and economic standpoint, the writer brought up some compelling arguments against recycling. Indeed, commodity prices are low and it does cost a lot of money to collect and process recyclable materials. And the sale of material does not nearly cover the cost of collecting, processing and marketing materials.
But a condemnation of the entire recycling process is shortsighted.
Recycling, like every process, evolves over time. The evolution of cars, for example, has given us automobiles that are safer, cleaner, more fuel efficient and more reliable than those manufactured 25, 50 or 100 years ago. The evolution of cars and transportation involves technology, materials, fuels, engineering, manufacturing and road systems.
Similarly, the evolution of the recycling process has allowed recyclers to become better at processing materials than 20 years ago. We have improved the efficiency within our recycling centers because of better engineering and advancements in technology. Our collection systems have gotten better. Markets have also evolved although many commodity markets are still extremely volatile. And recycling will continue to evolve as the industry adapts to changing conditions.
Over the past year, the profitability of recycling has taken it on the chin. Investors and developers are nervous as they struggle to see a decent return on invested capital. But rest assured, recycling will continue to be a viable alternative for the management of solid waste.
That’s not to say that recycling will not change … it will. Those of us who have been in the business for a long period of time have experienced market cycles. We’ve seen commodity prices rise and fall. We’ve seen markets for recyclables expand and contract. We’ve seen changes in the way recyclables are collected, transported, processed and marketed.
The evolving ton
Another change that we’ve seen is the change in the waste stream that people place at the curb. Changes in packaging and consumer habits have greatly altered the wastes and recyclables that people discard. Today, many containers and packages are much lighter. For example, aluminum–today, it takes about 34 12-ounce cans to equal one pound of aluminum. In 2007, there were about 30 cans to a pound. And in the 1970s there were about 20 cans in one pound. Over time, manufacturing techniques improved to the point where thinner-walled cans were just as good. Another example: Newspapers used to be thick and full of news and advertisements. Today, there are fewer people reading and advertising in traditional printed newspapers, and the average newspaper has gotten thinner.
And the composition of materials inside the garbage can and recycling bin has changed. Back in the 1980s, very few curbside recycling programs collected cardboard. Residents didn’t have too many cardboard boxes except for the occasional package that was delivered to their home. Today, cardboard boxes are regularly delivered to homes as consumers shop online and cardboard accounts for a significant share of residential recycling.
Current market conditions are cause for concern, and the recycling industry will adjust accordingly. We are already seeing adjustments as some municipalities are eliminating some low-value commodities, such as glass, from their recycling programs.
Despite the anemic economic realities, there are many good reasons to recycle. First, the design, construction and operations of recycling centers creates jobs. Second, the processing of recyclables allows millions of tons of materials to be re-manufactured into new products. Third, it’s typically less expensive to recycle than it is to dispose of materials, and there are significant energy savings associated with recycling compared to the cost of mining, processing and manufacturing new virgin materials from the earth. And finally, recycling is more sustainable and results in significant savings of greenhouse gas emissions.
The future of recycling
In the future, we will experience more changes and we will be more efficient than ever before. This evolution will be impacted by a number of factors including:
- Changes in the composition of waste materials that residential and commercial establishments produce.
- Fluctuations in market prices caused by the economic rules of supply and demand.
- Advancements in technology that improves efficiency and effectiveness of the sorting process.
- The cost of transportation and disposal that is influenced by regulatory costs, energy/fuel expenses, construction and operating expenses.
The bottom line is this: Recycling has many benefits and commodity pricing will eventually improve along with the demand for recycled goods. How long with that take? We don’t know. But we can be sure that the recycling will continue to evolve and get better over time.
Will Flower is general manager with Winters Bros. Waste Systems in Long Island, N.Y.