THE RECYCLING INDUSTRY IS COLLAPSING
In recent years recycling processing plants have been shut down. For instance, the largest recycling hauler in the U.S. (who also owns many major landfills) closed 25% of their recycling plants in 2018. In the state of California (a state known for its progressive recycling), more than 1,000 recycling plants have shut down since 2018.
Though there are several cited reasons for it, the collapse of recycling is primarily due to high contamination levels in the recycling stream. Contamination is trash or dirty recyclables in the recycling stream, and it cripples the economics of recycling. The process to remove contamination reduces profitability, driving up the cost of recyclables, thereby preventing many manufacturers from reusing recycled materials. As a result, they continue to deplete finite natural resources at alarming levels.
Contamination is a direct result of 1) millions of inconsistent and confusing labels on recycling bins throughout society, 2) confusion about what is recyclable at a given bin, and 3) the lack of national messaging about the importance of recycling right.
Headlines from articles over the past couple of years give insight to cities, businesses, and recycling haulers that are suffering from the collapse of recycling today.
When recycling is presented this way, it's no wonder people are confused and making mistakes at the bin.
CHINA NATIONAL SWORD POLICY
China, once a major purchaser of U.S. recycling, has banned the purchase of all recycling from the United States because of all the garbage in our recycling stream. Again, the contamination we see at the bin is the culprit for China's National Sword Policy. And this isn't the first time China warned us about our dirty recyclables. In 2013, China enacted a Green Fence Policy, limiting the amount of recycling it accepted from the U.S. They warned us that if we didn't clean up our recycling they would have to cease all imports of recycled goods from the U.S. and in 2018 they did just that. Recycling haulers are having to store their recyclables until they find a market for them or in some cases end up sending everything straight to the landfill.
China enacted the Green Fence Policy and warned us to clean up our act.
China enacted the China National Sword Policy which bans the import of recycled goods from the United States.
Recycling plants are shutting down and waste management companies that also own landfills are reporting the best fiscal years yet. Even India has banned recycled plastics from the United States.
THE CONFLICT OF INTEREST THAT'S KILLING RECYCLING
While the standardized labels are a simple, effective solution to fixing the recycling crisis, some of the large groups that influence the recycling industry are not motivated to fix the problem. Some of the biggest and most dominant recycling companies in the U.S. are owned by landfill companies. Therefore, when recycling doesn’t work well, the landfill side of their businesses becomes more profitable. You’ll notice in many news articles, the recycling professionals that are providing the excuses why recycling isn’t profitable or isn’t worth it right now are often working for or funded by the landfill industry, the virgin materials industry or the waste-to-energy incinerator industry.
When there is this type of conflict of interest at such an influential level in the recycling industry, it becomes clear why the simple issue of public confusion at the bin wasn’t resolved. Because when recycling is highly contaminated and too costly to process, then the landfills generate more revenues, the virgin material industries sell more virgin materials and there is a stronger appetite for building incinerators that burn waste to create energy.
We recommend watching both of these videos to get a sense of the bigger picture.
COMMON MYTHS ABOUT THE COLLAPSE
MYTH 1: THE RECYCLING INDUSTRY IS COLLAPSING BECAUSE OF LOW OIL PRICES
Although low oil prices and low landfill prices can compete with the economics of recycling --- contamination that stems from public confusion at the bin is the primary cause for the collapse of recycling.
Here's an example of why the contamination (aka garbage thrown in recycling bins) mixed in with the recyclables is destroying the economics of recycling and the ability for it to compete with virgin plastics and landfills:
We recently toured a recycling sorting facility (a MRF) with Congresswoman McCollum's staff. During that tour, the director of the facility said that their contamination levels were relatively low compared to most. However, when I asked her how much time they shut down their equipment and their employee productivity each day due to garbage and non-recyclables getting stuck in the sorting equipment, she explained they have to shut down a total of approximately three hours each day to try to undue jammed plastic wrap and electrical cords and garbage from the sorting equipment. Essentially one-third of their production and employees shut down entirely every day due to contamination. Additionally, they spend millions of dollars each year, paying to dispose of the unwanted garbage that comes into their facility.
All of those costly contamination issues in recycling processing facilities throughout the country are what prevent recycling from being economically viable and being able to compete with low oil prices and low landfill prices. If we eliminate confusion at the bin, these costly inefficiencies would be remedied and the demand for the materials would be strong. Recycling profit margins would be so far improved that they would then be able to weather occasional fluctuations in virgin commodity pricing.
MYTH 2: THE PUBLIC JUST DOESN'T CARE AND PEOPLE ARE LAZY
The public does care! In fact, recycling is the most recognizable 'green’ action that society is passionate about. So much so, that in 1996 when the New York Times (NYT) published an article called "Recycling is Garbage", it generated more hate-mail than any other article ever published before in the NYT. More often than not, people want to do the right thing, and they will do the right thing if it's easy and understandable. The fact that recycling is so poorly communicated to the public and that the importance of recycling is so underplayed often leads people to feel subliminal, or even overtly, that it must not be very important.
A HELPFUL ANALOGY: STANDARDIZED ROAD SIGNS
Imagine if every single road and highway you drove on in the U.S. had a completely different looking stop sign at every intersection, and every speed limit and yield sign on every mile of every road looked different. And imagine if every school crossing sign and all the paint lines on the road in front of every school and crosswalk were completely different as well.
At best, driving on the roads would be confusing and inefficient. At worst, we would see a tremendous number of fatalities and constant chaos on the roads. Such dysfunction would even affect the cost to distribute goods and would undoubtedly have countless negative economic and societal effects.
But the government and society have deemed road safety to be critical; therefore we have standardized signs on every street in the U.S. as well as a consistent painted line system for our roads, freeways, sidewalks and school crossings. These standards make our responses practically automatic; they create a reflexive response when we encounter them.
Unfortunately, although recycling is highly critical for our existence on this planet to protect resources, conserve water, conserve energy, reduce CO2 levels, improve manufacturing, create jobs and protect oceans and waterways from waste, there have been no standardizations applied to make it easier for people to recycle properly, wherever they are. One thing we know for certain; if people - the "actual recyclers" - are confused, recycling does not work well. It will not live up to its amazing environment and economic potential. The universal confusion about recycling projects a message of unimportance and prevents recycling and closed-loop manufacturing from thriving.
The video below dives deeper into this analogy.