COVID-19 Pandemic Reveals True Importance of Recycling and the Supply Chain

Paper, plastic, metal and glass recycling representatives discuss its essential link during SERDC webinar

April 30, 2020

9 Min Read

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security deemed waste collection an essential service, but they needed more information as to why recycling should be included. And the industry was loud and clear -- recycling is an essential service now more than ever, as part of the manufacturing supply chain.

In a recent webinar hosted by the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC), representatives from paper, plastic, metal and glass recycling companies discussed why processing recycling is especially important to the supply chain in order to keep essential products like grocery and healthcare items stocked during a pandemic. 

“I think we’re at a unique point in time,” said Susan Robinson of Waste Management Inc., who moderated the webinar. “We have the opportunity to help consumers connect the dots about why recycling is important. Instead of thinking about recycling as something that happens in kitchens and garages, we’re seeing that placing recyclables in our cart is only the first step in the manufacturing process that we rely on for our grocery and healthcare items, among other things.”

Robinson said markets and trade organizations worked together to ensure that emergency orders included recycling and processing. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) sent a letter to the U.S. vice president’s office that highlighted many reasons why recycling is imperative for U.S. manufacturing. Once the federal government included recycling, states soon followed.

“At Waste Management we were reminded of our essential role in the packaging chain when mill customers started calling to ask what we would do to ensure we keep their pipeline full of the essential products they manufacture,” Robinson said. “It led to a collective ‘ah-ha’ moment for our top leaders at Waste Management and a commitment from top to bottom to do our part to help keep our nation’s manufacturing industry in business.”

Robinson said that relying on recyclables as feedstock for products is not new; there’s just more visibility now. During World War II President Roosevelt asked Americans to contribute to the war effort by recycling metals, paper and rags. 

“I guess I see this as our World War II moment, and it’s an opportunity to highlight the role of recyclables in our nation’s manufacturing industry,” she said.

Shawn State, president of Pratt Recycling, gave a full-circle insight into how mixed paper recycling and curbside recycling are essential to the supply chain. 

“We’re essential because we need boxes to pack all the supplies that have to get to people,” said State. Sanitary supplies like toilet paper and paper towels, food products and medical supplies all arrive to their destination in boxes. 

“So just about everything moves in a corrugated box,” he said. And the majority of materials used to make boxes are from mixed paper and old corrugated cardboard (OCC) from recyclers. 

“Pratt is the largest consumer of mixed paper in the country. So of the material collected at the curb, a good portion of that is mixed paper. Fifty percent of what is put in that bin is mixed paper, and we need that feedstock for mills,” he said. “Material collected at the curb, collected in distribution centers, collected behind storefronts is what we need in order to run our business.”

But with many commercial businesses closed, State said “curbside recycling is important now more than ever.” 

“If you take that box out of the supply chain and you don’t consider a corrugated box company essential and then a recycling company essential, which is in the same supply chain, it will disrupt the supply chain and keep some of these materials from getting” to where they need to go.

Greg Wall, the general manager of the southeast region for Greif, talked about the significance of fiber recycling and its role in the supply chain. As State said with mixed paper, fiber recycling is key to producing boxes that ship and store essential products during this pandemic.

Wall said the fiber recycling industry was already facing challenges as a result of China’s National Sword policy, “which largely prohibited the import of recycled fiber, which significantly shifted global demand for OCC, generally the brown fiber that recyclers and mills need. This created a supply glut, driving down price and realigning the playing field in recycling by reducing the number of recyclers. Decreased global demand also shifted some recycled fiber away from reuse to disposal.” 

“The pandemic has taken this a step further by constricting supply of brown fiber ultimately required to produce packaging, potentially breaking a link in the supply chain if there is insufficient fiber to maintain packaging demand in the manufacturing and distribution sectors,” Wall said. “The pandemic has shown how complex and interwoven our supply chain is. A single broken link in the fiber portion of the manufacturing and distribution supply chain can become a bottleneck that limits the entire supply chain from functioning.

“Critical products and tools needed to help those with COVID-19 and prevent its spread in the workplace and at home, would not be readily available without recycled fiber to help produce the packaging required,” he said.

 “Robinson mentioned this is our World War II moment, and I think that’s very true. In response, there are dots to be connected residentially, commercially and industrially. We believe education is key,” Wall said.

“As we face economic and budgetary hurdles and recover from COVID-19, recycling can be a means of solidifying and strengthening the supply chain, minimizing cost and protecting the environment as a whole. Our economy will need this,” Wall said. “Recycling is not just beneficial, it’s absolutely necessary, and despite the destructive nature of COVID-19, the pandemic can provide the impetus to build a brighter and better future for recycled products.”

If mixed paper and fiber recycling are at the beginning of the supply chain, “we consider ourselves to be right there in the middle where supply meets demand,” said Stephanie Baker, the director of market development for KW Plastics.

Baker said KW Plastics purchase bales of high-density polyethylene and polypropylene from all over North America then the company cleans and reprocesses it into a post-consumer resin pellet that is sold to molders that make a wide range of products. Markets include major automotive, beauty, personal care, packaging and more.

“When we started seeing COVID-19 in full effect and quarantine taking place, we immediately received letters from many of our suppliers that they were naming us as an essential supplier,” Baker said. “Long before the federal government confirmed that.”

Before COVID-19, Baker said a lot of brands were making sustainability commitments to include more recycled content in packaging, specifically for plastic.

“All of that has come to stop right now,” she said. Brands are scaling back to manufacturing products that are essential, leading to a higher demand in natural resin. 

“Unilever, Procter & Gamble – they’re all brands that keep us clean. People are home, taking more showers, particularly those in essential jobs. We’re seeing there’s an increased demand for detergent, soap, obviously household cleaning agents. We know where we are there, we can’t keep that on the shelf,” Baker said. “So, we’re going to ship 9.5 million pounds this month of our natural resin specifically to support the household product market, and personal cleaning and care items. That is a significant amount for us in that particular resin.”

Baker said that before the pandemic, plastics had a bad name, but they do serve a healthy and safe purpose in the marketplace and culture. “Anything COVID-19 has done specifically for plastics has reminded us of the hygienic and disposability aspects of plastics, specifically single-serve plastic, and there’s an appropriate time and appropriate application for that.”

Much like boxes and plastic packaging, the manufacturing of cans and glass also relies on a circular system, with the majority of its content being recycled material from deposit states.

“So, when you drink out of a U.S. beverage can, what you’re holding on average is made of 73 percent recycled material,” said Scott Breen, vice president of sustainability at the Can Manufacturing Institute, a trade association which represents U.S. can manufacturers and suppliers.

“We recycle more than 5 million aluminum beverage cans in the U.S. every hour, so it’s 45 billion cans every year in the U.S., and those cans are worth $800 million,” Breen said. “About 95 percent of those cans get turned into new cans, so there is a lot of can-to-can recycling going on, and that’s why we have this high level of recycled content and it’s why we’re the textbook example of the circular economy.”

But because of COVID-19, Breen said there has been fewer used beverage cans (UBC) flowing through the circular system, mainly because the deposit states like California, Michigan, Connecticut and others aren’t accepting returns. Deposit states are important since “40 percent of recycled cans come from just those 10 U.S. deposit states.” 

“So given our high levels of recycled content, this drop in UBC flows means we won’t be able to make can sheets with the same kind of inputs as we have been, and we’re proud of the high recycled content. We want to maintain it,” Breen said. “And the can sheet is needed now to make essential food and beverage can containers during this crisis.”

“During a time when outsized demand for everyday canned foods, beverages and disinfectant products is straining supply chains, can manufacturers need to be able to continue manufacturing iron-clad containers that supply quality food and sanitizing products to American consumers,” Breen said.

Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute (GPI), said “much like Scott Breen was sharing, glass is already an essential part of the standard batch mix for glass containers around the country, averaging right now about 35 percent of any glass package-- -- bottle, jar – is likely going to be recycled content.”

The problem is, about 60 percent of the recycled content comes from deposit states that aren’t accepting bottle and can redemptions currently. 

“Redemption laws are still in place but retailers aren’t doing as much redemption, except for Michigan, which suspended bottle drop rooms,” DeFife said. “And that is having a significant impact on the supply of cullet that is going through most of the processing operations across the country, so it’s essential we start to pick that up and find other outlets to do what we can to improve the amount of glass that is captured in the material recovery facility (MRF) and recycling stream.”

DeFife said they’ve done “significant outreach to states, the governors and the state operators and state officials where we had glass plants and cullet processing to talk about the essential nature of the entire supply chain and to point out the need to continue to move glass through the recycling system during this time of crisis.” Especially when more than 90% of glass containers are used for food and beverage purposes.

“I think it was, as Robinson mentioned in the beginning, it really is a key opportunity for us to make that connection with the consumer and, quite honestly, with many public officials who don’t realize necessarily how important that the recycled glass is to making new glass bottles and jars.”

“Every challenge is an opportunity,” DeFife said.

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