A recent article in The Guardian reflects what we have been feeling for reasons of our own within our business. We are not in the first tier of the recycling process. We have been there in the past – actually bringing in bales of minimally sorted plastic bottles and paying our employees to carefully remove the resins that shouldn’t be co-mingled with the #2 HDPE resin that is our predominant feedstock (we can tolerate some #4 LDPE and #5 PP because our process is “forgiving” enough to handle that much variety). At that time, we actually were paying them more in “bounties” than their base rate without the inducement.
It has seemed to us that recycling in general, while happily still continuing to be utilized in many communities (ours included) to reduce transfer costs and the space required in limited landfills, is no longer given very much “public” attention. This has psychological impacts on the individuals who are creating waste. They may feel that their personal effort isn’t really significant or that the “problem” has already been solved without their input. Neither of these perspectives is valid. Waste and the accumulation of it are still an issue we should all be concerned about. Recently the Environmental Protection Agency announced that as of 2013 overall recycling rates were 34.3% of the waste stream and had contracted for the second year in a row.
The article notes – “Falling oil prices, a strong US dollar and a weakened Chinese economy are combining to make the global business of recycling less profitable than ever.” The article goes on to say – “Once a profitable business for cities and private employers alike, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise.” This is not good news after so much effort has gone into changing a lot of individual behaviors with curbside programs. In the world as it exists today most enterprises that consistently lose money do eventually fail. David Steiner, Waste Management’s chief executive, stated this directly – “We want to help our customers, but we are a for-profit business. We won’t stay in the industry if we can’t make a profit”. According to Waste Management, and confirmed by other recyclers as well, “more than 2,000 municipalities nationwide are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.”
And it isn’t only municipalities struggling, Waste Management’s recycling division posted a loss of nearly $16 million in the first quarter of the year. The company has shut nearly one in 10 of its biggest recycling facilities. According to Steiner, “An even larger percentage of its plants may go dark in the next 12 months”. Even though environmentalists and conservation advocates question whether the industry is overstating a cyclical slump, a perfect storm of falling oil prices, a strong US dollar and a weakened economy in China have conspired to devastate prices for American recyclables worldwide. Chinese companies have also become pickier about the quality of American materials they purchase.
I remember when we had to do a lot of the work of recycling ourselves BEFORE we ever took our recyclables to the collection center. Everything needed to be sorted and I always made sure it was clean as well. Although our local center does still ask for some pre-sorting by citizens bringing in their recyclables, many centers and especially curbside programs don’t require any sorting at all (but I guarantee you that to make use of it all – it has to be sorted – before it is further processed). We pay a “bag fee” on transfer station non-recyclable trash. Maybe the collection centers for recyclables need to start charging a much lower fee for those items – perhaps half of what the landfilled materials cost to dispose of.
Contamination of the recyclable stream has always been a problem. Glass is a problem in automated sorting facilities because it often breaks and ends up rendering valuable bales of paper or plastic unsaleable. And the reality is – uninformed and untrained curbside program users often contaminate their recyclables with garbage – even if some of the items were placed there with optimistic good intentions that they had a residual value.
And there is an interesting market impact due to changes in the packaging of consumer products. Patty Moore, head of California-based Moore Recycling Associates, notes that “. . . what’s different now is that the material mix has changed”. The once-profitable old newspapers, thick plastic bottles and aluminium cans that could be easily baled and reused make up a far lower percentage of the recyclable stream, replaced by lighter weight alternatives like vacuum-packed bags for coffee and foods like tuna fish. Tin cans and plastic water bottles have become thinner. Many items such as soup and other liquids come in aseptic cartons now. Even the plastic milk jugs we depend on for Yemm & Hart’s Origins product are frequently replaced with that type of packaging.
And in the midst of all the bad news, there is this bright spot – an increase in cardboard turned in for recycling. More people are buying items through online merchants (we certainly do as stores are a long way from home and time consuming to shop at). Because of this trend, cardboard has doubled its volume in the recyclable stream. Also businesses that eventually process sorted plastic bottles continue growing and a processor that feeds an Indiana paper mill churning out 100% recycled cardboard has just recently added capacity with two new facilities coming on line.
Everyone should care about these issues. Anyone can make a more diligent effort to do a good job of recycling ONLY materials that can be utilized and keeping their garbage contamination out of the recyclables system. Like droughts or floods, the current economic situation could change at any time – oil prices could rise (though I’m not wishing for that out of terrible self-interest). The US dollar could weaken and I’m not proficient enough at economics to say whether that would be a good or bad thing for most of us. And one could put some hope in China’s tendency to plan far far ahead for the common good of their own people. Unfortunately, the United States of America does not tend to look beyond the next fickle election cycle and our politicians are unlikely to ever care very much about “trash”.
The danger is that we could lose the momentum built up over several decades with a short-term, profit-driven/loss-adverse mindset or even worse – apathy. The reality is that money still makes the world go round . . . environmentally we would be better off if quality of life and human welfare and protecting the world that sustains us were the values that determined decisions about what should be done and why. I don’t see such a sea change in perspective coming any time soon, not even in my lifetime, and yet I never say never and I don’t give up hope easily.
~ Information Resources
Why the US recycling industry is feeling down in the dumps by Aaron C Davis posted on 06/27/15 and reprinted in The Guardian online from The Washington Post – http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jun/27/recycling-unprofitable-oil-china-dollar
Aseptic packaging details at “FAQs” for Pacific Foods – http://www.pacificfoods.com/about-pages/faqs
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer
When I talk about the impact of social media, I do not only mean resources like Facebook or Twitter or Blogs. I include commercial television, everything internet accessible and rapidly disseminated throughout modern culture. This flow of information and ideas is having radical effects on life as we know it now. Even The Simpsons gets into the act. In the Eleventh Season episode “Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner”, I just overheard a woman green-washing about the percent of recycled paper in something or other; and when pressed by Lisa Simpson for more detail, the woman admits to ZERO percent and adds “zero is a percent”. It’s funny in a Simpson’s episode, but not at all funny in real life, not when our environmental quality is already very stressed.
The May 5, 2014 issue of Plastics News had the following front page headline – “Environmental group targets Capri Sun”. The issue is packaging and the issue has been packaging for a very long time actually. I notice packaging. I separate and recycle packaging. Capri Sun is a product of Kraft Foods Inc. The reason the Capri Sun package is getting attention is that it’s made by bonding several layers of polymers, perhaps more than one resin type or simply multiple layers of, with aluminum. Their nemesis is Upstream (formerly, the Product Policy Institute) and the campaign is known as “Make It, Take It”, which launched April 30th. There are some well-known environmental groups involved in the effort – 5 Gyres, Clean Water Action, Natural Resources Defense Council, Water Keeper Alliance and the Sierra Club. Also involved are Eureka Recycling, Green America and the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
The goal of the campaign is to pressure companies to make beneficial packaging design changes and accept an extended responsibility for the goods they make as a producer of those goods. The effort also seeks to ENGAGE the American people into taking meaningful action. Not everyone is beating up on Capri Sun. A well known innovator in recycled product design, TerraCycle has partnered with Capri Sun for years. Where there are viable collection channels for Capri Sun pouches, they are shipped in bulk to TerraCycle. The simple re-use of the product has limited marketability but is a “fun” approach. They are turned into bags, backpacks and wallets, simply by sewing the pouches together. A larger volume possibility has been in turning them into something “new” to be used as benches or garbage cans.
TerraCycle is well-known to our firm. Back in 2001, Tom Szaky, then a Princeton University freshman became enamored with worms and composting. He entered his idea to use worms to eat organic waste into the Princeton Business Plan Contest, placing 4th. A fortunate meeting and acceptance by a venture capitalist, allowed him to start a business. While working with WalMart and Home Depot as distributors for his soil and fertilizer related products, Tom found himself under lawsuit by Scotts Miracle-Gro but fought back using “social media” with a blog called suedbyscotts.com. The case was later settled out of court but had brought TerraCycle wider national recognition.
From our explorations with TerraCycle, they are innovative and creative and find ways to leverage other companies to finance or take over their recycling ideas and concepts. For example, Capri Sun spends “millions of dollars a year to ‘sponsor’ the TerraCycle program”. That is the TerraCycle method of generating most of their revenue now – working with large consumer products companies to give them better environmental credentials – for a price.
Although the efforts by TerraCycle with Capri Sun are commendable, Upstream does not feel that they can make a significant dent in the volume of that waste stream. Certainly, as users of polymer/plastic resin feedstocks, Yemm & Hart does know that the more basic, and clean or simple, the feedstock – the better the results that we get when using those recovered materials to make quality new materials that can be used by building, remodeling and construction applications.
The truth is that “the pouch” has become a very ubiquitous waste stream. I now find “pouches” at the grocer with food stuffs that previously were in cans or tetra paks. I’ve found convenient single servings of olives, tuna and peanut butter appearing now in such pouches.
The issue is changing the perception, about the responsibility to thoughtfully consider the implications of the packaging created by high profile, profitable corporations in order to sell their actual product. It is in effect still a paper or plastic question, cloth or disposable diapers anyone ? For the most part, local governments hold the waste management responsibility for society and contribute to the recycling business as a market participant, in order to recover costs. In the early 1900s, garbage was different and was mostly coal ash and food scraps, with a small proportion of simple manufactured products, like paper and glass. Today, products and packaging comprise 71% of our waste stream, some containing toxic components.
Right now, consumer goods companies can design a product, package it any way they like, and leave the problem of what to do with the product, its packaging and its environmental impacts to local governments, taxpayers, and garbage ratepayers. This is not a model system for the sustainable management of materials. This is the business as usual approach of corporations to shift costs away from their bottom line and onto consumers. As a result of this lack of corporate accountability for waste, the practical result remains that two-thirds of all that is consumed is ultimately discarded as garbage – ie ends up incinerated or landfilled.
As a society, we continue throwing away our natural resources, expending precious and limited energy resources in a wasteful manner, and failing to create new jobs, when that possibility would otherwise exist. Simply by throwing almost everything we buy, once consumed, into the trash. It is overdue to change our perspective on such aspects of our modern lives. The mission of Yemm & Hart, as a company, is to extend the life of natural resources that have already been extracted. It’s making “new” materials from waste materials that have been recovered, through recycling efforts.
~ Information Resources
Thanks to Funny As Duck.net for the Simpsons “cartoon strip” – http://funnyasduck.net/post/13168
“Consortium targets Capri Sun in new push to emphasize recycling” by Jim Johnson posted April 30, 2014 at PlasticsNews – http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20140430/NEWS/140439993/consortium-targets-capri-sun-in-new-push-to-emphasize-recycling
“Make It, Take It” Campaign – http://upstreampolicy.org/projects/make-it-take-it-packaging-campaign/
TerraCycle – https://www.terracycle.com/en-US/
Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer