May 28, 2019
This guest blog is provided by Michael Nork, New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services
Recently, it seems there has been a flood of news stories about the recycling “crisis.” Municipalities are seeing rising costs due to contamination problems and market restrictions, causing some to make tough choices about whether or not to continue recycling. There’s no doubt about it, these are tough times for recycling. However, it isn’t the end of the world.
It’s true that the import restrictions imposed by China’s “National Sword” policy have caused a disruption in the recycling marketplace. However, some media reporting might lead one to believe that the US was shipping the vast majority of its recyclables overseas. In fact, in any given year over the past 20 years, only about 30-40 percent of US recyclables was exported, while the majority has been, and still is, handled by domestic markets. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that we need to increase our domestic processing capacity in the wake of China’s blockade on certain recyclable materials, most notably mixed paper and mixed plastics.
In recent years China has been the world’s largest consumer of recycled paper. Mixed paper by itself is the largest single component of the recycling stream, at roughly 40-50 percent by weight. As such, the value of recovered paper has traditionally been the backbone of US recycling programs. Unfortunately, China’s recent import restrictions have led to an oversupply of mixed paper in the global market, which has had a drastic impact on the overall economics of recycling. However, to date, at least 6 North American paper mills see opportunity in this glut of feedstock and have announced facility upgrades to increase use of post-consumer mixed paper. It will take 2-3 years before these infrastructure projects come online, but they point to a brighter future for domestic market capacity. Similar developments are in the works for recycled plastics infrastructure as well.
Additionally, it’s important to keep a little historical perspective amid all “the-sky-is-falling” news coverage. This is not the first time that recycling markets have faced a rough patch. Including the current collapse, there have been six recycling market downturns since 1990. According to industry veterans, the markets typically sour every 4-5 years, but rough patches are followed by corresponding rebounds. As the old saying goes, ‘what goes up must come down,’ and vice-versa. The current downturn may be one of the worst in recent memory, and the market certainly won’t rebound overnight. But, as mentioned above, there is already evidence that the industry is adapting to the new reality with additional domestic processing capacity coming online over the next few years.
This doesn’t mean, however, that we can just sit on our laurels and expect the industry to fix everything for us. It’s important to remember that contamination is one of the primary reasons the Chinese government shut its doors to our recyclables. Luckily, contamination is something that we as individual consumers can control by paying attention to what we put in the recycling bin. Admittedly, it’s not always clear what is or isn’t recyclable, and the rapid evolution of packaging materials over the last decades has added to the confusion. However, waste management companies, municipalities, states and regional organizations have started outreach efforts to communicate what should and shouldn’t go in the recycling bin. One example is the Massachusetts “Recycle Smart” campaign. Keep in mind what is recyclable in one town or region may not translate to another locality – always check with local authorities to confirm what’s applicable in your area. Nevertheless, the current challenges being faced by the recycling industry present an opportunity to fix what’s broken, and we can all make sure we’re part of the solution.
NERC welcomes guest blog submissions. To inquire about submitting articles contact Lynn Rubinstein.
Disclaimer: Guest blogs represent the opinion of the writers and may not reflect the policy or position of the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc.
 Robinson, Susan. “The Changing Waste Stream.” EPA Webinar Series, November 13, 2014 (slide 12 of 31).