Updated: Nov 17, 2020
The recycling industry and municipal programs are at the tipping point of disruption!
Chaos is setting in and citizens are losing confidence in the “system”:
Canada recycling programs are broken
California recycling industries are struggling
Eastern States recycling costs are skyrocketing
US and Canadian cities are killing or scaling back their recycling programs and resources
These disruptions are impacting the waste and recycling industry and could eliminate hundreds of jobs.
Costs associated with recycling are escalating, revenue associated with recycling is down.
The ban in China combined with the current mechanisms and programs to manage and handle waste is the primary cause of scrap waste piling up in warehouses and parking lots. Some are ending up in waterways, oceans, landfills, and incinerators. In nearly all cases, waste disposal is now more expensive.
We may not know where all your recycled materials end up, but it does become a part of the recycle / waste ecosystem that contributes to a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Until 2018, China was the largest importer of recycled materials from Canada and the US. In an effort to crackdown on the country’s environmental and pollution impact, it banned and stopped accepting most foreign recyclables.
As a result of this ban, the Canadian and US global recycling system has been crumbling and numerous North American cities are now scrambling to figure a cost-effective approach to manage their recycled goods.
Over the last three decades and for most North Americans, recycling is practically second nature. It’s mandated by law for most residential and commercial establishments in numerous cities and failure to comply can result in fines. The problem, though, is that while recycling has become trendy, it is also becoming harder to do and the costs continue to rise.
Even when a product is recycled, its eventual destination is still a landfill. During the height of the recycling hype, millions of tons of garbage still went to the landfill, and the production of virgin plastics increased at a steady rate alongside recycled products. There was a steady stream of new landfill openings as recycled was hyped to be the next big environmental savior.
This ban by China and other Asian countries are pushing businesses and counties to rethink their environmental footprint, causing panic, and chaos as waste no longer has a place to go, they are now scrambling to adapt and reset.
Waste material and plastics are now ending up in landfills, incinerators, and littering land, forest and waterways, as rising costs to haul away recyclable materials are rendering the practice unprofitable. The recycling industry is facing a crisis as the country struggles to handle the tons of stockpiled recyclable waste it had previously shipped to China and other Asian countries, resulting in tons of plastics and other household garbage being burned.
In the United States, local governments and recycling processors are scrambling to find new markets. Municipalities have curtailed collections or halted their recycling programs entirely, which means that many residents are simply tossing plastic and paper into the trash. Some places in the US and Canada have stopped accepting black plastics and rigid plastics like disposable cups while others are now burning the bulk of their recyclables at waste-to-energy plants which are now raising concerns about energy consumption, ash, and air pollution.
Many recycling programs transitioned from requiring consumers to separate paper, plastics, cans, and bottles to today’s more common “single stream,” where it all goes into the same blue bin. In other cities, we are seeing different recycling rules, processes, and habits, countries, provinces, states, cities. municipalities and industries do not follow a standard recycling program.
As a result, contamination from food and waste is on the rise, leaving substantial amounts of previously recyclable material unusable.
China has cut off imports of all but the cleanest and highest-grade materials — imposing a 99.5 percent purity standard that most exporters find all but impossible to meet. This effectively means that all recyclable plastics from municipal recycling programs are now banned and complex plastic packaging with colors, additives, and multilayer, mixed compositions are now more difficult and costly to recycle.
Cities with long-standing recycling collection programs have been especially hard hit. North American small town and rural recycling operations have been hit the hardest. While most continue to operate, rising costs and falling incomes are forcing some to shut down, stop curbside pick up, or stop accepting plastics. These actions are forcing residents to travel (not emission-free) to drop off points in faraway locations if they want to “recycle”. The impact is people just toss their “recyclables” in the trash instead.
Although larger cities are finding alternate paths to expand their operations to process higher-quality and more marketable materials, many have had to make changes, including dropping some harder-to-recycle materials from their programs and asking residents to discard those items in their household garbage.
As a result of these changes, we are experiencing a rise in Incineration, and tons of waste is burned at waste-to-energy plants, which are designed to contain emissions. However, early indications are these state-of-the-art incinerators can emit dioxins and other harmful pollutants but time will tell as scientists study the emissions and operation of these facilities.
Everywhere there is evidence of consumption, waste, and trash, this simply demonstrates how much we have transitioned to a life of “disposable” conveniences.
Consumers and industry alike will need to brace for big changes.
As we transition to more effective means of waste mitigation ad reuse, other short-term options beginning to emerge, material recovery facilities are expanding operations, upgrading equipment, and adding workers to improve sorting and reduce contamination so that the materials are acceptable to more discerning buyers. This process adds costs and is highly dependent on higher market prices for waste material.
Additionally, to force change, some jurisdictions are planning to tax manufacturers and charge consumers environmental levies to curb the problem. These actions are punitive and will not change behaviors or achieve the desired outcomes.
Moving beyond “greenwashing” and “wish cycling” — the assumption that everything in the blue bin gets recycled is not true. Consumers will need to change their purchase practices, avoiding single-use containers and packaging that have no recycling value. Industries that produce these products will need to be held responsible for their life-cycle impacts, possibly in the form of legislative mandates.
We need to stop looking at recycling as a primary solution to our waste problem,
A focus on recycling also shifts the burden to consumers, while ignoring other avenues of sustainability, such as design, material handling, production, and re-use.
The transformational question before policymakers is ‘who should be responsible?’ Should we allow manufacturers’ want to maintain the status quo because they profit from continuing to buy cheap virgin materials with no disposal obligations and downloading the cost to the end-user or taxpayer? The costs of reuse and repurpose should be distributed across the participant supply chain to be effective and economical.
In the recycling industry, strong markets remain for many goods, such as paper, cardboard, and aluminum. But there’s a growing volume of plastics, mixed plastics, contaminated mixed waste material, construction material, and other valuable waste. The issue is we have no standard mechanisms for evaluating excess material and excess material quality. This is changing, as we at ResultantGroup are in the process of validating and testing excess material valuation models across the supply and participant chain. to encourage and enable monetization of excess material (Resultantgroup.com).
Reducing our rate of consumption and the amount of waste we generate is the most important thing we can do.
The recycling crisis triggered by China’s ban has an upside, we are now forced to design reuse and repurpose into our products at conception. What happens to material that is at the don of life? is it recycled or sent to landfills? What percentage is really recycled?
The ideal process for reuse and repurpose should not be left to the end-user, it must be part of the original design, and the end of life must now be a driving design factor!
What is shipped to other countries, what is burned?
We don’t know.
Everything is possible, and we must consider the opportunities and impacts of all solutions, technologies, and modernize as we learn to lessen the social, environmental, and economic impacts.
This all requires a new way of thinking and significant behavioral changes
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