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Articles from 2020 In May


Covid’s Impact Squeezes Corporations’ Efforts to Cut Use of Virgin Plastics 

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Among the economic disruptions COVID-19 has caused, the steep drop in the price of crude oil is putting many corporations in a pickle regarding pledges they’ve made to reduce their use of virgin plastic packaging. 

The decreases in crude oil prices, which fell below zero for the first time in late April, have in turn dragged down the value of virgin plastics, and at the same time the recycled material available to make bottles, boxes and bags has become more scarce and expensive. 

As a result, some industry experts are becoming concerned that corporations may be forced to back away from the pledges they’ve made to slash their use of virgin plastic packaging. 

"We talk to many processors, many MRFs [materials recovery facilities], many collection and hauling companies every day," says Closed Loop Partners Executive Director Allison Shapiro. "They are unanimous in expressing their gratitude to corporate commitments. Everybody’s nervous that corporates may back out of their commitments." 

On the other hand, there are signs of hope that these trends will turn around: the gradual reopening of the economy and the likelihood that the production of virgin plastic resin will slow in response to oversupply, thereby boosting the competitiveness of post-consumer plastics. 

Read the original article here. 

The Plague of Uncertainty: The Pandemic’s Unpredictable Impacts on Recycling and Its Markets (Commentary)

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At the end of January, I spoke on recycling markets at the Connecticut Recyclers Coalition Annual Conference. I never uttered the word “pandemic”. So much for my predictive abilities.

In spite of that, they asked me to do a webinar at the end of this month on the pandemic’s impact on recycling markets. Much of its impact on the industry is well known. Residential trash and recyclables are up, commercial trash and recyclables are down. Because businesses, as a whole, generate more of both, overall waste and recycling generation are down. Due to social distancing and other requirements, MRF workers are being separated and line speed has slowed. Worker shortages have been a problem for some collectors and processors.

Our waste and recycling streams have changed because what we buy has changed. We shop online more because so many physical stores are closed. Our use of grocery delivery is up by 400 percent, after spiking at 560 percent. Delivery of meals from restaurants is up 50 percent.  At the same time apparel sales are down 46 percent. I don’t think face masks are included in that category, but they are in demand now. Sales of office supplies went up by six percent because many office workers now work from home.  

Perhaps most importantly, consumer spending peaked on March 11 and was down 25 percent by May 12 (see here for a fascinating look at these changes). As we have less money to spend, we will inevitably buy fewer things.

The pandemic has accelerated changes in the paper products we buy. Office and school closures have lowered demand for printing and writing paper to the extent that 20 paper making machines are taking downtime in this quarter. Packaging paper, however, is surging. Increases in e-commerce and home grocery delivery have been very good for the box industry. Containerboard mills are running at 95 percent operating rates.  

Some aspects of recycling markets remain unchanged. Recyclables are still commodities with fluctuating values. Recyclables are still bought and not sold and buyers have the same needs. They want reliable quantities of raw materials with reliable quality, at an acceptable price. Their definition of an acceptable price may differ from yours.  

The pandemic has also highlighted the reliance on container deposits by recycled PET, aluminum and glass end markets. Deposits produce raw material in reliable quantities and with reliable quality. Those supplies have been temporarily shut off by redemption suspension in the deposit states.

As for prices for recyclables, we have a mixed bag. The booming need for corrugated boxes has substantially raised old corrugated container (OCC) prices.  Those higher prices have lifted residential mixed paper prices. The margin between the two is easily enough to entice MRFs into spending the extra time and money to separate boxes from residential mixed paper.

Ironically, the higher prices are not good for the mills that rely on OCC as a raw material. Their 2020 procurement planning did not anticipate the pandemic and the higher demand for their product. They are not thrilled about the higher new prices they are paying. In addition, the quality of OCC from commercial sources is always better than that from residential programs. When offices reopen, commercial sources are likely to again take precedence. If demand for consumer products fall as our financial belts are tightened, prices for OCC and mixed paper will also fall.

Prices for metal and plastic recyclables continue to slide. Supply has exceeded demand for metal cans for over a year. As for recycled plastics, falling prices for virgin resin lead to falling prices for recycled resin. I don’t see much hope there. The brands who made highly publicized commitments to increase their use of recycled content in packaging need to come to the table and start honoring those commitments. But how much more can we realistically expect them to pay for recycled resin?

Uncertainty is the biggest problem in predicting the pandemic’s impact on recycling markets. We are in uncharted waters. Prices going up and down for recyclables is old news. But this time a virus is responsible. That is new news.  Uncertainty is the order of the day. 

  • How long will the pandemic last? 
  • When will a vaccine be developed? 
  • When will businesses and offices and schools reopen? 
  • Will the economic recovery be “V” or “U” shaped or will it be more like the swoosh that characterized our recovery from the Great Recession? In that case, gross domestic product bottomed out early in 2009 but took two and a half years to return to its 2008 peak before the recession began (see here for a look at the different ways the economy could recover).

If I had the answers, I would give them. At Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting earlier this month, Warren Buffet said “I don’t believe anybody knows what the market is going to do tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.” Uncertainty is our reality, but it is not a safe harbor.  

Let’s accept that reality. Enjoy the current high prices for OCC and the better pricing for residential mixed paper. After all, paper is the biggest item in recycling bins. Expect changes when businesses and factories reopen. And let’s not waste this unique opportunity to rethink recycling. Let’s take a hard look at what we are trying to achieve with our recycling programs. Are higher recycling rates our goal or lower greenhouse gas emissions. We can’t have it both ways, but let’s seize the time and figure out how to get the best of both.

As for how all this plays out for recycling markets, I’ll let you know in a year.

BTW If you would like a copy of the power point and speaker notes I used yesterday in Connecticut, send me an e-mail and I’ll send them to you.

Need to Know

Forthcoming Analysis from Pew Charitable Trusts Will Offer Solutions to Ocean Plastic Problem

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The Pew Charitable Trusts—in partnership with SYSTEMIQ, the University of Oxford, the University of Leeds, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and Common Seas—will release a new analysis on ocean plastics in the coming months. 

The report will present “evidence-based pathways to reduce the flow of plastics in the ocean” in an effort to help inform government and industry actions to address the problem.

“Plastic pollution in the ocean is one of the greatest environmental challenges of our generation,” and the elimination of such “will require major shifts by many, from producers to waste managers, along with significant new investments and policy changes from government.” But, Pew asserts that by working together “societies can significantly reduce the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean.”

One element of the analysis will look at the most popular types of plastics (including rigid monomaterial plastics, flexible monomaterial plastics, and multilayer/multimaterial plastics) to understand why they are being produced and how they could be eliminated, substituted, or recycled.

“The volume of plastic both in and flowing into the ocean might seem overwhelming, but it’s a problem that can be solved.”

View the original article here.

Need to Know

The Consumer Brands Association Endorses a Surcharge on Virgin Resin

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The Consumer Brands Association (CBA), a trade group that champions growth and innovation for the consumer packaged goods industry, is suggesting a new surcharge on virgin resin.

Its site explains that, “Virgin resin, which is used to make plastic, is currently less expensive than recycled resin. A fee for virgin resin would put it on price parity with recycled resin, making it more cost effective for use in packaging.”

But, as noted by Steve Toloken, Assistant Managing Editor for Plastics News, “It's a big shift in thinking.” He goes on to explain that, “Part of CBA's strategy is to nationalize recycling policy and have Washington play a bigger role in what has historically been a state and local problem.”

Post-coronavirus, governments will be short on cash but will still want to address recycling problems…and many CBA companies have made major public commitments to use more recycled plastic and make plastic a more circular material. The resin fee has “the advantage of being able to generate money to fix a problem without the consumer ever feeling it directly. Politicians will like that.”

View the original opinion piece here.

Need to Know

Texas Launches A Recycling and Recyclables in Manufacturing Survey

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Next month the State of Texas is launching a survey to document recycling and the use of recyclables in manufacturing statewide. It will also evaluate multiple recycling economic issues.

The results of the survey will be made available to the 87th Texas Legislative Session, along with a Recycling Market Development Plan, which will provide recommendations for Texas policy makers to utilize the economic, environmental and policy issues of interest to Texas businesses, citizens, and governmental agencies.

The survey will provide recommendations on how to support and grow the Texas recycling industry. In addition, an educational campaign will be developed to highlight the economic benefits of recycling, the companies in Texas utilizing recycled feedstock, and contamination reduction messaging.

“The Recycling Market Development Plan will build on the successful foundation of the Study on the Economic Impacts of Recycling. We invite recyclers and manufacturers from throughout the supply chain to participate in this year’s effort, as their help will be essential to develop resilient, future-looking recycling markets for Texas-generated materials,” said Scott Pasternak, Burns & McDonnell Senior Project Manager, who is managing the Recycling Market Development Plan.

The data will help Texas build a stronger, more circular materials management system in the state, which ultimately means more jobs and revenue for Texas cities and businesses, and less waste.

For more information about the project, visit www.txrecyclingstudy.org

Need to Know

Virginia Beach Waste Crews Are Seeing Increased Volumes

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In Virginia Beach, Va. waste crews are currently working six days a week and picking up a lot more trash than usual in light of COVID-19. With more people working from home, trash, yard waste, and recycling volumes are up 20%. The number of people making drop-offs at the landfill also increased by almost 90%.

“People are cleaning out their garages and doing a lot of yard work and it just creates a lot more material for the city,” noted Public Works Waste Management Operations Manager Gary Kelly.

George Anderades is one of the city’s Waste Operators and noted that while every day brings a new challenge, he is dedicated to maintaining a high level of service. “[People] need their service and we need to provide the service as much as we can and we need to take care of them. They are our people.”

Lately, some trash cans have been so full that Anderades can’t use the electronic arm to pick them up. “So I have to get out, lighten up, dump the can and refill it.”

Kelly assures local customers that, “If it’s at the curb, we will make sure it gets service.”

View the original article here.

Remote Testing Helps MRFs Safely Plan System Improvements

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Van Dyk Recycling Solutions has implemented remote testing at their Technology & Testing Center in Norwalk, CT to comply with social-distancing recommendations. With airline travel becoming less desirable for most, Van Dyk offers a way for customers to do research on potential purchases without putting themselves at risk. These tests can be particularly useful during these times when equipment upgrades may be under more scrutiny. The “try before you buy” nature of these tests can help determine what upgrades will accomplish the desired result before committing to the investment.

Tests include a thorough run-through on Van Dyk’s fully operational sort line, which features screens such as an elliptical (ballistic separator) and multiple optical sorters for NIR-spectrum testing. Customers will send in a sample of their material stream and receive a comprehensive report on the test results, along with video recordings of the material trial runs. Testing research can help customers prepare their operations for an uncertain future.

Van Dyk’s test center is the largest recycling material test center in the world. To schedule your test, contact Van Dyk Recycling Solutions at 203-967-1100 or info@vdrs.com.

Need to Know

Oprah Winfrey and Katy Perry Invest in Food Waste Solutions with Apeel Science

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California-based Apeel Sciences, which produces an edible, natural coating for fruits and vegetables in order to extend shelf life and prevent food waste, has announced a new round of funding worth $250 million. And, among the investors are celebrities Katy Perry and Oprah Winfrey—both longtime champions of sustainability.

“These are folks who want to join in our mission to help build a more participatory food system that’s based on nature,” noted Apeel CEO James Rogers. 

Perry recalls: “I met James, and I went to Apeel and toured the offices and the labs and saw the science in real time and was just so blown away I thought it was witchcraft—in the best of ways.” She elaborates that, “[Apeel] gives farmers a chance. It gives us more options as a consumer. It takes produce shipping off of planes and back onto shipping containers, so it lowers our CO2 emissions.”

As for Winfrey, she hates to see food go to waste and appreciates that, “Apeel can extend the life of fresh produce, which is critical to our food supply and our planet, too.”

View the original article here.

Need to Know

It’s Never Too Early to Recycle

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It is no secret that with millions of people staying at home during these tough times, more trash is being collected -- but is it all “trash” or can it be recycled?

Have your kids join in with Nico to help reduce, reuse and recycle with tips and fun activities. Children will learn the importance of recycling, tips for recycling and other exciting lessons. After completing the activities, they will put their knowledge to the test with fun quizzes.

Saving the planet is a job for everyone, no matter the age.

Enjoy the activities here.

 

Balz Improves Waste Diversion in Southwest Ohio

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As the solid waste manager with the Hamilton County Recycling and Solid Waste District, Michelle Balz coordinates long-term planning for the district and provides technical assistance to local residents and businesses. 

Balz created the Recycling at Work program, which has already assisted 512 businesses and reached 62,800 employees, and she initiated the Bar and Restaurant Recycling Program, which has assisted 152 businesses. She also recently helped six communities (43,138 households) provide automatic curbside recycling, which achieved a 3,300 ton annual increase in recycling. 

Balz, who was named a recent Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner, spoke with Waste360 about Hamilton County’s innovative waste diversion initiatives, her passion for composting, and why she loves working in the waste industry. 

Waste360: What are your major responsibilities as the solid waste manager?

Balz: I oversee our programs and our staff and make sure that we are meeting state-mandated recycling goals and following our solid waste plan. Our mission is to reduce how much waste goes to the landfill. 

We have a lot of programs that help basically anyone who creates waste to reduce that waste. We work with industries, businesses, schools, and residents. We work straight with residents to provide direct programs to them; we have drop-off programs; and we do a lot of outreach and providing programs to the public.

Waste360: What are some of the goals for reducing waste going to the landfill, and what are some of the ways that you have either incentivized or educated people about why these goals are important?

Balz: Ohio has state-mandated waste diversion goals. We tackle these goals in a few different ways. One is to work with communities. We have 48 communities in Hamilton County. We work with all 48 of those communities on their curbside and drop-off recycling programs, and also on their yard waste composting programs. 

We have a very large grant program that I manage that is $900,000 a year. That gives money to those communities to help them offset costs for those programs. That ends up diverting quite a bit of waste from the landfill.

Our other big program that helps with the commercial sector is called Let's Stop Waste. That is a program where we offer technical assistance and supplies to pretty much any kind of business, and even churches and schools. 

Waste360: You helped to create the 15-year solid waste management plan; can you talk about what the plan is, and how it is used?

Balz: We are required to write a 15-year solid waste management plan every five years. With the last plan that we wrote, which started in 2018, we started writing it three years before that. 

We considered questions like: what other best practices are around the country or even in the world? What are the things that we're doing that are most effective; what are the things that are not as effective? What is waste going to look like in the next 15 years? Do we have the capacity to manage it? How are we going to meet the state-mandated goals? 

Waste360: What is something in the plan that you think is really exciting that you either have rolled out or are about to implement?

Balz: I would say one thing would be our organics outreach. One thing we struggle with in Southwest Ohio is that we don't have a Class II composting facility, which is a composting facility that can take food scraps. Because of that lack of infrastructure for composting, we were forced to look higher up in the waste hierarchy, which was a good thing. We've focused on programs to reduce both residential and commercial food waste. 

We've had some really innovative programs to try to reach out to residents and get that message out to them and change their behavior. We did utilize the assets that the NRDC created along with the Ad Council, with the Save the Food campaign.

Last year, we had our For the Love of Food: A Free Foodie Fest, which took place in downtown Cincinnati in a centrally-located park. We had over 1,000 people come. The idea was to have a fun, family-friendly event that involves music and food. There were lots of different stations all about ways to reduce wasted food and the importance of food. It was really a great collaboration with different organizations around the city. 

Waste360: How are you helping residents and businesses dealing with the coronavirus situation in your community? Are there any initiatives that you're doing to make sure people have their recycling and waste management needs under control? 

Balz: Because we don't own or operate any facilities, we haven't had too much interaction in that area, but I've been in contact with the waste operators in the area and our health departments about it. 

We postponed our spring composting seminars for two months. Hopefully, we can still have it in two months. We have kept open our yard trimmings drop-off, and made some rules to try to make sure that people are social distancing, and that nobody is coming too close to anybody else. 

Also, we have been thinking about what programs we could offer people while they're stuck at home. We've been talking about doing some videos on waste reduction and some fun webinars for people who might be looking for something to do.

Waste360: Throughout your career, what is something you are really excited or proud to have been part of implementing?

Balz: I'm really proud to have written a book. I wrote a book on backyard composting called Composting for a New Generation. I think it's really helpful to people who want to start backyard composting, and it has a lot of do-it-yourself projects. I did it all on my own time, with having my job with Hamilton County, and having two small children. It was definitely a proud achievement, and I was really happy with how it turned out.