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When It Comes to Recycling, Don't Listen to Landfill Owners
Published: November 23, 2018
Money Talks and our Broadcast News often follows it. Our willingness to accept as fact what a pundit with a vested interest in the topic propounds is frankly, frightening. Our modern lack of attention span and eagerness for truncated news leaves us virtually without most of the story. Please view what Waste Management is saying about recycling (please watch the full video, recycling comes up near the end of it):
Nothing that Mr. Fish states in his interview is untrue, however; what is missing are the essential reasons why RECYCLING for Waste Management has come to be financially unattractive. It is not only because China no longer wants to accept our DIRTY recyclables. Why should China have anything to do with it anyway? What happened to our own domestic market for the collection and conversion of recyclables into usable materials?
You see, about 15 or 20 years ago, the US domestic recyclables market was strongly developing. Households separated their recyclables into individual collection streams: plastics, metals, glass, and paper. Newspaper and cardboard were almost always bound by string and set at the curb and picked up separately. Municipalities picked up residential waste in separate trucks and at different times for garbage and various recyclables. This Multi-Stream collection ensured that CLEAN recyclables were available for conversion into usable, recycled materials. Afterall, it’s impossible to get “good” quality end products out of a process when you start with “bad quality” inputs! Profitable revenue streams flowed from highly recyclable items like aluminum cans, papers, and cardboards. In many cases, the profits from these materials justified the recycling of less financially attractive recyclables like plastic and glass. Because recycled plastics are more expensive to produce than virgin plastics, it is difficult to grow their demand. Additionally, glass is not only expensive to melt and form, but competes with less expensive plastics for many applications. Yet, even with these challenges, the USA infrastructure for recycling was developing and recycling was becoming a viable business.
As with most businesses, more profit quickly became the mantra and a little known recyclable collection method, Single-Stream, became the trend. With Single-Stream recycling, all the recyclables are collected together and then mechanically separated at a MRF (Materials Recovery Facility). This specialized operation receives, separates, and preps recyclable materials for sale to manufacturers who use recycled materials in their goods. Single-Stream recycling collection was marketed as being more efficient, relying less on households to separate recyclables properly, and more profitable for municipalities because “less” trucks could be employed to collect the municipal waste. Large numbers of municipalities switched to this collection method which relies on magnets and other mechanical means to separate the recyclables into various streams. Many municipalities sold off their now “extra” trucks and turned toward outside haulers to pick up and take their recyclables to new, Single -Stream MRFs. Unfortunately, Single-Stream collection often results in contaminated recyclables, e.g. Glass shards end up in plastics and food oils stain papers. Poor quality input materials mean a lower percentage of recyclables are converted into recycled materials and a larger percentage of “recyclables” originally collected end up in landfills. Recycling becomes less attractive and its market development slows.
As with most businesses, timing is important for success. Even though Single-Stream recycling has its quality disadvantages when compared to Multi-Stream recycling, the large USA demand for products made in China, created a market for our “lower quality” recyclables to be converted into raw materials in China. The recyclables once converted domestically were now shipped to China for conversion and use as raw materials in their manufacturing processes. Although the recycling infrastructure was weakening here, the demand for recyclables shifted to the Chinese export market.
Demand puts pressure on Supply and “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” so now pops up an even newer collection method coined, DIRTY Recycling. This method mixes everything together: GARBAGE and RECYCLABLES and relies on “DIRTY” MRFs to separate it all out. Even China can’t accept this bad stuff!
With the USA recycling infrastructure weakened, recyclables mixed with garbarge, and China finally saying “NO” even we won't recycle this stuff, sending our waste to US landfills becomes justified again! The divestment in recycling by Waste Management (the largest landfill owner) is not because “we Americans” can’t separate garbage from recyclables. Waste Management adopted, marketed, and convinced municipalities to turn away from Multi-Stream collection. Even Mr. Fish’s predecessor, David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management told CNBC in a 2013 interview that separating the recyclables at the point of collection would be a better method than Single-Stream. It’s hard to imagine that knowing this in 2013 that “Dirty MRFs” ever came into existence. Isn’t it amazing how the entire story has worked in their favor? Waste Management’s lucrative, core business, “Landfills”, is rising again!!