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How Recyclers Ride Rough Times


Attendees of a Sept. 14 WasteExpo session: “Ups and Downs of Recycling” got an inside look at how the largest U.S. city’s waste management operations are faring against COVID-19. They were also privy to one industry “big’s” strategies to ride tough commodities markets, to build new capacity, and to curb contamination. And they got a glimpse at outcomes around some of this corporation’s undertakings.

Moderated by Anne Germain, National Waste & Recycling Association, the session’s presenters included Brent Bell,  Waste Management; Peter Wright,  Office of Land and Emergency Management, Environmental Protection Agency; and Bridget Anderson,  Recycling and Sustainability, New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY).

Bell kicked off the session with the frank statement, “With contamination, safety of workers is an issue. Propane tanks and batteries cause explosions in recycling facilities and fires on trucks and tipping floors. [Besides the safety concerns] contamination affects good materials. So, we spend a lot of time educating.”

In 2018 Waste Management had a 25% residue rate; within a year the figures dropped below 20%.
The company, which manages 15 million tons of recyclables a year, focuses not just on educating customers on what’s acceptable but on trying to ensure a home for those materials. The latter job still requires a lot more work, according to Bell.

“We have goals of zero waste and to increase diversion. But one thing we have lacked focus on is making sure there are good end markets,” Bell said.

Waste Management is working to close in on that gap by investing in infrastructure—especially in light of China’s National Sword, which has forced urgency to find new markets. As an example, he cites what’s happened with paper, which enjoyed a long ride as one of the largest export commodities.

Waste Management was sending nearly 27% of its paper to China in 2017 but in 2020 those numbers dropped below 2%. The downward spiral was industrywide, impacting every recycler dependent on China.

Bracing for that country’s full out ban on some materials in 2021, Waste Management has had its eye on domestic markets and is optimistic about prospects.

“We are seeing an infrastructure shift from China to the U.S., which will create more jobs and make it easier for residents to recycle.”

Even more capacity is coming online, he said.

Anticipating this brighter future, Waste Management has invested over $100 million in recycling infrastructure in the last 12 months and over $100 million in the 12 months prior. The corporation opened four new recycling facilities and earlier this year opened what it calls its flagship materials recycling facility (MRF) in the Chicago area— its largest residential recycling investment to date. The highly automated MRF uses intelligent sorting, which provides the ability to identify and pull specific desired materials. This flexibility, Bell said, will be important to recyclers’ future because the technology will enable them to adapt to changing waste streams. “We will model other facilities like this one,” he said.

Manufacturers can and are starting to play an important role in helping to strengthen markets. This has meant supporting a unique recycling business model—a model whereby even when demand drops, waste companies take in materials from generators who want to protect the environment.

“We have to make sure markets are there to move material daily. And we are seeing manufacturers saying they will use more recycled materials in products and packaging. There are a lot of great end markets starting to develop recently, and our big takeaway is we should help support those brands using more recycled content,” Bell said.

During Wright’s presentation, he punctuated that recycling provides valuable feedstock and also can strengthen local economies and the workforce. More than 750,000 Americans work in the recycling industry and millions more in manufacturing supported by recycled materials. But the national recycling rate is lagging. While it was less than 10% in 1970, and is now 35%, Wright said, “I am sorry to say the rate has hit the ceiling.

“While growing recycling presents immense economic opportunity, to realize this opportunity, and the environmental benefits along with it, we must come together to address challenges facing the domestic system.”

He highlighted major challenges to include:

  1. Confusion around what can be recycled and specifically what consumers should do to avoid contamination;
  2. Processing capabilities that have not kept pace with evolving waste streams;
  3. Lack of domestic markets; and
  4. Differing state and local approaches to collecting, defining, measuring and tracking recycling.

In his elaborated summary of these challenges Wright said:

“Our recycling facilities are ill equipped to manage today’s waste stream.   Investments are needed to improve processing capacity in the U.S.  Domestic markets need to be strengthened for recycled materials. And we need to better integrate recycled material and end-of-life management of product and packaging designs.

Additionally, different state and local approaches to manage materials and differences in how recycling is defined makes it hard to track and measure nationally. More consistent measurement methodologies are needed to measure performance, monitor progress, and create meaningful goals.”

Wright shed light on EPA’s current work to support recycling. Among efforts, some key undertakings include:

  • EPA is providing national leadership in implementing actions under the National Framework to Advance the U.S Recycling System. It provides state, local and tribal governments with national data and tools to assist with decision making and seeks to enhance demand and supply of recyclables.

Specific areas of focus are

1) promoting education and outreach;

2) enhancing materials management and infrastructure;

3) strengthening secondary materials markets; and

4) enhancing measurement.

  • EPA is developing a national recycling strategy with stakeholder input as well as national recycling goals to be announced in November 2020.
  • EPA is working with the Chamber of Commerce Foundation to launch a web-based clearinghouse featuring recycling-related resources such as best practices and funding opportunities to support infrastructure enhancements.

The agency has heard from stakeholders that among top current challenges are those imposed by COVID-19. For instance, communities are seeing used gloves and masks in recycling bins or on the ground. So, EPA issued public service announcements to remind the public to dispose of that equipment properly as well as to educate communities on how to recycle right during the pandemic.

Another educational focus entails improving landscapes on a local level and reaching multiple players along the value chain.

“Because secondary materials expand beyond state borders, EPA has partnered with other organizations like The National Recycling Coalition to do market development workshops across the country connecting stakeholders across the value chain to explore solutions  to local recycling challenges,” Wright said. Priorities have been on addressing contamination and finding end-of-life uses for difficult-to- recycle materials.

EPA encourages all organizations to sign America Recycles pledge to work with others across the value chain. “It is only through collective actions that needed systematic changes will occur,” Wright said.

Anderson discussed what the world’s largest sanitation department—New York City’s—is doing through COVID-19 and the pandemic’s effect on the community it serves.

The commercial waste sector is in bad shape, she said.

“About 90 percent of commercial was lost during COVID-19 and is slowly creeping back but many of these businesses are in need of support as we try to open the city.”

This past year New York passed a law requiring the transformation of the commercial waste system into a geographic zone system, and the pandemic has challenged timely completion of this major transition.

The agency is hopeful it will be able to keep with the original timeline; however, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in its work, so it is working to figure out next steps for the commercial waste transformation.

There is a strong effort to keep recycling going through these unusual times.

“We are guided by strong policies … to maintain a robust recycling program. We have mandatory recycling on the residential side and the commercial side … We have very strong policy direction from the mayor’s office about climate  change and zero waste to landfills and the role waste management plays in a strong and sustainable city,” Anderson said.

There are transfer stations in each borough and collections have continued daily through COVID.

Refuse and recycling are intact but curbside compost and e-waste pickups have been suspended.  Food waste drop off had been fully suspended but funding has been partially restored so there is a limited- scale program.

The city has had to make difficult decisions and there will be more tough choices moving forward.

“Generally, the crisis is pushing New York City and other cities and counties to focus on core operations; how do we keep the legs on for what we need to do to advance solid waste management?” asked Anderson.

She referenced physical infrastructure assets, including Pratt Paper on Staten Island to produce new goods from recycled paper and Sims municipal recycling who holds a contract too.

“It’s in our interest to keep these programs going to avoid temporary disruptions that could be costly,” Anderson said.

Still she said there is a need for better markets and the agency is looking for ways help support improvements in materials it collects.

“We have critical mass, but the question becomes how do we create a situation where there is demand for that material?” Anderson asked.

The agency has had conversations with government and private sectors about extended producer responsibility (EPR) and hopes to advance that concept.

“We have existing laws with particular hazardous material types, but for packaging and paper, EPR may be a way to help pool investments from the private sector to advance infrastructure goals that we need across  municipal systems and across private sector systems to have a stronger, more resilient basis for doing recycling in the U.S.,” Anderson said.

Don’t miss any other fantastic sessions happening this week at WasteExpo Together Online. It’s not too late to register! https://www.wasteexpo.com

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