Each generation has its unique life experiences that lead it to almost inhabit a different universe than the one that follows, and all stand agog at the unfathomable peculiarities of the other.
When mine came of age, at the dawn of the first Earth Day, we drew headlines for burying an 8-cylinder automobile–to the abhorrence of our parents, who had lived through the Great Depression–and our grandparents, who had lived before electricity, and the labor saving devices in its wake, reached the farm.
For recyclers, there are the scrappers of old and their familial descendants who understand the eternal verities of what they still call the scrap business. The more recent generations of environmentalists call it recycling; big business, product extensions.
Whatever one calls it, recovering used material is–and over the long run will always be–a low margin business subject to plunging commodity prices, most recently from shifting paper markets and China’s Green Fence. On top of that are macro economic forces from low oil prices, an expensive dollar and long port strikes.
That’s why, I have to imagine, scrap dealers snorted in their beer when Waste Management CEO David Steiner recently said in the Wall Street Journal, as if downturns like this could not have been anticipated: “Recycling is in a crisis. It isn’t profitable for us, and we have to react to that by shutting down plants. [We] shut down four recycling plants over the past year. More plant closures are planned. Two years ago we were investing anywhere from a 100 to 400 million a year in recycling. Last year we invested virtually nothing, just maintenance.”
As a low-margin business, there always has been a mismatch with publicly traded firms in an industry sector that points investors to high margins like 30 percent on disposal. Vertical integration from trash into recoverables was always a shaky proposition.
Indeed, in 2001, Steiner’s predecessor, Maury Myers, was about to sell of the company’s material recovery facilities (MRFs) during an earlier downturn. Just then, its recycling chief, Steve Ragiel, convinced Myers that they could create the kinds of barriers to entry needed to sustain premium pricing by pushing single-stream recycling that imposes high capital requirements.
Ten years ago, with cheap back hauls to China, it may not then have seemed unreasonable to the uninitiated to be unconcerned about the propensity for single stream to produce low quality material, especially when operated at high throughputs to boost profits. But, real scrappers know that, in the long term, good times do not keep on rolling. Like large price shifts, processors’ standards, they know, will go up as end markets’ demand softens, and you have to build your cost structure to be prepared for that future day when the hatchet will fall.
In the beginning of the 1990s, when curbside recycling took off, it was easy to see why the national trash companies leaped into recycling. Eight thousand cities were clamoring for the service and they wanted the contracts. Cleaning up their image from a decade of mob violence and antitrust convictions was icing on the cake.
But, more than 30 years later, the incompatibilities are reaching the breaking point as the national trash companies have revealed themselves less than committed to recycling’s future. Each may have legitimate needs and attributes, but together they no longer fit together.
And, as we move increasingly into food scrap recovery, where intimate knowledge of composting and digesting is essential, specialization by stream will be more essential than ever.
Perhaps the business model of the soft drink industry might make more sense. There, Coke suffered from consolidated returns that included low margin bottling. To maximize its market price, Coke shifted bottling off the books, keeping only high-margin syrup.
Here that would mean the trash companies could jointly bid on franchise contracts with local recycling companies–who are not publicly traded, do not need to earn high margins and understand the long-term verities of the scrap business. That would be a way to carry forward the wisdom of past generations of scrappers into the modern world with a business model for the discard and recovery streams that makes sense for each other.
Peter Anderson is president of RecycleWorlds Consulting, executive director of the Center for a Competitive Waste Industry, and project director for the multi-state Plastic Redesign Project.