In March 2018, we published a blog about the state of the recycling industry and how the China Sword (China's import ban on contaminated material) was affecting recycling markets, and therefore, recycling programs all across the country. It's been about a year and a half since we wrote that blog, and with America Recycles Day coming up this week, we thought it would be a good opportunity to update our network on the state of recycling in Texas and beyond.
The long story short is that it's been a tough time for recyclers lately. Since China's Sword severely restricted the amount and type of material the U.S. was able to send its way, global recycling markets suffered. The U.S. previously sent around 40% of its recyclables (primarily paper and plastic) to China, and other Southeastern Asian countries have followed suit with import bans for contaminated recyclables. This created a back-log of material coming from U.S. recyclers, and since recycling in a market-driven system, prices for recyclables fell to record lows, particularly for paper and cardboard.
When commodity prices are low, recyclers have a hard time making a profit, and oftentimes part of the financial burden of recycling is passed onto local governments. It's important to remember that services, like recycling and trash disposal, are not free and eventually, certain costs will be passed to residents so local governments can continue to efficiently provide these services. Because of this, we have seen some cities or counties either discontinuing their recycling programs or delisting materials (where they stop taking previously accepted recyclables that are either harder to process or have very low value, such as glass). In Texas, we haven't seen too many communities ending their recycling programs yet, although a few local governments have been discussing this option, much to the consternation of residents who want to continue recycling. And due to market impacts, Waste Management closed their Beaumont recycling facility, causing recycling to end for the time being in the City of Beaumont and other neighboring communities. Orange County was one of the communities affected by the closure. Keep Orange County Beautiful worked to find alternative recycling solutions and discovered Recyclops, a Utah-based startup bringing recycling to areas where recycling's been reduced or is unavailable.
We also see more local governments trying to find real solutions to an increasing contamination problem. Contamination is what happens when non-recyclable material makes its way into recycling bins and carts and eventually to the recycling facility. Contamination rates have spiked in recent years to 20-30% in a number of communities, which means that roughly one in every four trucks going to a recycling facility is full of non-recyclable material, or trash. This is inefficient and expensive for several reasons. That trash has to eventually make its way to a landfill, and the recycling facility has to pay to transport and then tip that trash into the landfill. Contamination also can decrease the quality of the bales of recycling produced (hence the outcry from foreign end markets), and it can wreak havoc on equipment at the recycling facility. It is also unsafe - sharps and needles can pose concerns for workers on sort lines, and propane tanks and batteries at recycling facilities are huge fire risks.
Due to the increasing contamination issue, some cities in Texas have implemented enforcement programs through cart inspections and recycling fines. The cities of El Paso, McAllen, and San Antonio (along with a few others), have all had people out in neighborhoods lifting the lids of recycling carts and inspecting the contents, and if households are repeat offenders, the cities are fining residents, taking away their cart, and/or offering extended education on how to recycle properly. We've also seen some MRFs actually charge cities for high contamination rates, providing even more of an incentive for local governments to try to get a grasp on the contamination issue.
However, there are some bright spots amid all the doom and gloom, and most recycling experts see this period of turbulent markets as yet another storm to be weathered until markets eventually even out (as has happened in the past). Since there is now a large supply of material that is no longer heading to Asia, companies have started investing in domestic end markets to help alleviate supply issues in the U.S., and while these investments may not come online until a few years from now, they can provide a long-term solution to domestic capacity issues. We also see an increased commitment from major companies and brands, like Coca Cola and Unilever, to try to recover as much material as possible, in hopes of meeting their recycled content goals. This has also led to more high-level discussions on educational best practices and sound recycling policy that can help move the needle forward when it comes to recovery rates.
In Texas, this past legislative session, SB 649 was passed into law, requiring TCEQ to produce a recycling market development plan. This plan aims to provide an update to previous state recycling studies (like TCEQ's Study on the Economic Impacts of Recycling, released in 2017) and will provide strategies to overcome current barriers to increasing the use of recyclable materials by end markets. For more information on this plan and the legislation that required it, go to www.txrecyclingstudy.org.
In the meantime, local governments, in conjunction with their KTB affiliates, can continue to drive home the message that good recycling is the key to continued recycling. There are a ton of resources out there for local governments involved in recycling education, and KTB has taken more of an active approach to training affiliates on why simple and easy education is important for the overall health of the recycling system.
We hope everyone has fun celebrating America Recycles Day this week, and if you ever have any questions on recycling issues, our Program Director, Sara, is always happy to chat (ad nauseum, as evidenced by this blog!) about recycling and answer your questions.
Blog Post Written By Sara Nichols, Program Director.