2015 promises to be an intriguing year for recycling and organics recovery. In no particular order, I see the following as major trends to watch for.
Recycled paper markets are weak and unlikely to improve. Prices for recycled paper have slowly declined over the last six months. This decline is caused by a weakened Chinese economy. In addition, many Chinese paper mills expanded too rapidly. As a result, they are running at only 80 to 85 percent of operating capacity. With less demand for their finished product, they can’t afford to pay higher prices for paper. This, of course, is good news for American paper mills that use recycled paper, but bad news for curbside programs.
Recycled plastic markets could also be in trouble. Low oil prices may be good for us every time we fill our cars, but as the price of oil declines, so does the price of polyethylene resin. At this point, that decline has had little impact on prices for recycled HDPE and PET bottles. That could change. Moreover, the latter has been hurt by an oversupply in virgin resin. As plastic recycling tonnages become more important for curbside programs, those programs do not need a double whammy.
Recycling tonnages will continue to decline in 2015. Paper remains the most important material for recycling. Yet, our use of printed paper is down by 19 million tons since peaking in 2002. That may be good for meeting zero waste goals, but it is bad for recycling businesses. In addition, the continued light weighting of packages will further lower tonnages. Manufacturers may someday reach a point where they can no longer trim weight off of packages, but they are not there yet.
E-scrap tonnages will also decline. Part of the success is due to existing programs in clearing old televisions and computers out of our attics and basements. An additional factor is that electronics products are becoming lighter, smaller and more versatile. After all, how many individual products does a smartphone replace?
Organics recovery will continue to receive a great deal of attention in state legislatures and at the local level. We will see new curbside collection programs for food waste and even more emphasis at restaurants and other businesses that generate large quantities of food waste. However, the high cost of anaerobic digestion and the normal NIMBY attitudes towards new facilities will slow progress. The good news, though, is that programs diverting edible food from disposal to feeding the hungry will continue to gain momentum in 2015. This will help lessen the need for other recovery options.
Flexible packaging will continue to grow in use. These packages have enormous environmental and energy savings benefits, but they replace recyclable and recycled content packages. Their waste reduction benefits will force environmentalists to decide which is more important: waste reduction or recycling?
Zero waste efforts by manufacturers will continue to grow.. While manufacturers have always wanted to make more with less, their devotion to finding ways to achieve this has skyrocketed in the last few years. For instance, the Hormel company announced in 2014 that 37 separate projects had eliminated 4 million pounds of raw materials in its production processes. Think about that for a second. That is 4 million pounds that won’t be extracted as a raw material in 2014 and 4 million pounds that won’t be recycled or landfilled. These waste reduction campaigns at the manufacturing level are having a powerful impact.
Yes, 2015 will be a very interesting year. Enjoy it!
Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Waste & Recycling Association, Washington, D.C.