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Takeaways from the Resource Recycling Conference

Here are some highlights from discussions that took place during the conference’s first full day.

More than 500 attendees are in Minneapolis this week for the 2017 Resource Recycling Conference. Discussions at the sessions have taken on topics including the state of markets for recycled materials, what’s happening with recycling policies nationwide and how all stakeholders are dealing with challenges like contamination, education and improving the quality of what’s processed.

One of the event highlights was a Recycling Town Hall sponsored by the National Recycling Coalition that featured more than 30 groups. The discussion stretched for nearly three-and-a-half hours.

Here are some other key takeaways from some discussions that took place during the conference’s first full day.

  • Carey Hamilton, executive director of the Indiana Recycling Coalition, facilitated a discussion between Bridget Croke, from Closed Loop Partners, Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership and Brenda Pulley, senior vice president of recycling with Keep America Beautiful (KAB). The women discussed the missions of their respective organizations and what each is doing to help promote recycling throughout the United States.
  • In responding to whether there is overlap of too many groups of trying to accomplish the same goals, Croke said, “Does anyone feel over-resourced or overfunded? ... [When] there's a variety of organization each trying to take their piece and solve it in different ways, there is a challenge of staying coordinated and we make sure we don't have overlap.... We're trying to formalize ways to do that.”
  • Pulley pointed to the role of customers in helping pressure manufacturers to increase how much recycled material goes into what they are producing. She pointed to KAB research that indicated that more than 50 percent of respondents said they want companies to use recycled content. “What's the cleanest stream we can provide?,” she asked. “We have to be able to give feedstock to a manufacturer who can rely on it.”
  • Even as recycling has come very far in recent decades, access to curbside pickup remains a challenge in some communities and is a focus of The Recycling Partnership’s work. “The reality is much of this country has a lot of stuff that is not being managed,” Harrison said. “Our focus on building a heartier, healthier recycling system is meant to address that. [It’s also] why we're working on climate action, marine debris and healthy communities. Recycling is part of a larger portfolio.”
  • A second plenary featured Nina Belluci Butler, CEO of More Recycling, Joe Pickard, chief economist and director of commodities for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and DJ VanDeusen, senior vice president of recycling, WestRock. They discussed market demands, particularly as it pertained to plastics, metals and fiber.
  • Butler pointed out that for some plastics there is far more supply of material collected then there is a capacity to process, making it a sector that’s highly dependent on the export market. “The supply is fundamentally hampered by how we collect material without an emphasis on quality,” she said. “On the demand side, there are good economic conditions and some commitments for use of (post consumer recycled plastic). But the low price of virgin has fundamentally affected the supply/demand balance.”
  • Another complicating factor is south Texas is a prime area for production of plastics. There is now capacity offline as a result of Hurricane Harvey. The full impacts of that disruption are not yet clear.  
  • Pickard said pricing for both ferrous and non-ferrous metals had been on an upswing. But China’s recent efforts to crack down on solid waste imports was likely to disrupt that momentum. For example, 70 percent of U.S. copper and copper alloy and 50 percent of aluminum scrap goes to China
  • China is also a big buyer of recovered fiber. Although it has some domestic capacity to process recycled materials, much of what its paper mills produced is exported. VanDeusen said China needs 30 million tons of feedstock imported annually to feed those mills.
  • “In developing nations, there is a growing demand for feedstock,” VanDeusen said. “Growing economies demand more consumer goods that come in packaging. And the infrastructure and recovery systems aren’t keeping pace. So there is material out there.”
  • China’s crackdown was a topic of frequent discussion throughout the day. Many speakers said they saw the move as a potential opportunity to develop additional end markets for recycling materials and to continue efforts to deliver higher quality, cleaner feedstocks.
  • “From our standpoint, there are some opportunities here,” Croke said in the morning plenary. “We are still seeing significant ... interest in the space from investors because end markets do still exist. This is an opportunity to look at where are our end markets and where can we diversify.”
  • “The Green Fence (in 2013) created some temporary disruption, but the quality of all mixed paper got better,” VanDeusen said. “That's not necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately it put some measures in place it made the world better at (processing mixed paper.)”
  • Pickard added that China’s limits on scrap imports could increase the incentive to invest in better sortation technologies in the U.S.
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