(Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series about the state of recycling today. Pam Graber describes changes in the industry, and some of the challenges those in the business face.)
“If we want to move recycling product, we have to do it better,” said Michele Ryder, ARS vice president of sales and marketing.
“Now, the whole mindset is, when in doubt, throw it out. Nine times out of ten it’s going to be considered trash.”
Changes in recycling have been spurred by a crackdown on recyclable materials by the People’s Republic of China.
A small bit of the wrong kind of paper in a load, a tin can mixed in with a bale of aluminum– and China will send the whole load back.
“It’s a national crisis. It’s not just a Northwest Ohio crisis,” Ryder said.
“From a recycling standpoint, recycling has never been a profitable business. It’s a commodities market.”
Recyclable material must be collected, hauled, and sent through a sorting line at an MRF, or Material Recovery Facility.
The MRF runs with reverse magnetics so it will sort aluminum (which is not magnetic) and steel (which is).
But workers still must hand sort other items, and throw away garbage that comes in with the recyclables.
“Due to the changes in the recycling market, many national companies have started charging environmental and process fees in their pricing structure,” Ryder said.
“The fees typically have no cap, since the market is so volatile.
“Our company has chosen not to add these fees to date, as we are working to educate the communities and give them a bit of time to clean up the recycling stream first.”
Due to changes in the recycling market, ARS and the Fulton County recycling program no longer accept glass.
Another product that is no longer accepted is fiberboard/ paperboard.
This includes things similar to frozen pizza boxes or 12-pack soda boxes.
“The typical buyer doesn’t want it anymore, so everybody that we have networked with to move our products are saying, ‘We don’t want it mixed in anymore.’
“This means that we can sell it, but we have to bale it separately. Again, labor intensive.
“You have to pull it all out of the line, you have to make room for a separate product, you have to store it, you have to bale it, and then, you have to ship it.
“That’s product that used to go in with cardboard, so you were blending that product. “
That means fiberboard is “yet another thing we have to sort off the line separately. Labor intensive, very costly,” Ryder said.
“There are constant changes in the industry.”
The severe restriction of the Chinese market has driven the domestic market to expand, but it’s not happening fast enough to help most of the MRFs.
“We have more cardboard than we know how to move. We have more paper than we can move,” Ryder said.
“It’s not going overseas anymore.”
“We had someone who was going to buy a load of plastic. They called us back and said, ‘We’ll buy it, but not until November,’” Ryder said.
“Now we have to sit on this product and store it because they won’t take it until November.”
After paying to process the product, letting it sit in the warehouse does not help the bottom line of the MRF.
“I will say this about our company as a whole, we are doing a very good job of keeping our head above water right now,” Ryder said.
“There are many facilities that have just closed their doors. They can’t handle it. It’s getting that bad.”
“We know we’re going to come out on the other side of it.
“Our goal is not to ever stop recycling, because it’s important that we keep doing it.”
A New Wrinkle
“Interestingly enough, now China is coming over, buying up the (MRF) locations that are closing down, processing waste, shipping it back to themselves in raw, or virgin form, and not paying tariffs to get it back and forth,” Ryder said.
“They’re pretty smart.
“It’s very political. I just know that they’re buying up basically every MRF that is shutting down, and they’re revamping them.
“Revamping the lines to get the product they want, and then they’re sending it back to themselves.
“They’ll turn around and sell it to the manufacturers.
“I think it’s important for people to understand the industry, because I want people to understand that when we say we can’t take glass, it’s not because we’re lazy.
“It’s not because we don’t want to process it. It’s not because we can’t make a million dollars on it.
“It’s literally because we have nowhere to move it. Nobody will take it.”
Next week: Tips on recycling smarter.