If you tossed paper or plastic in a blue recycling bin this year, there’s a good chance it won’t find its second life anytime soon.
The global supply chain that takes waste from households in the United States to processing plants in China has collapsed, industry leaders say, leaving months’ worth of recyclable material sitting in American warehouses without a prospective destination.
“The industry is in crisis,” said James Warner, CEO of Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority (LCSWMA). “The economics of recycling are underwater.”
Pennsylvania waste companies, including the York County-based Penn Waste, which collects and processes recyclable waste in Harrisburg and most of south central Pennsylvania, are seeking temporary relief from a state law that prohibits the disposal of recyclable materials as trash.
The Department of Environmental Protection enforces that law but does not have the authority to grant exemptions from it, according to an agency spokesperson.
As a result, recycling firms are accumulating hundreds of tons of recyclable material that they cannot sell.
“We cannot get it out the door quick enough,” said Penn Waste spokesperson Amanda Davison. “We’ve already slowed down processing and we’re adding more equipment and labor… but the markets have collapsed.”
Davidson said the material at Penn Waste’s facility in York County is getting even less marketable as time goes on, since “it can only sit outside for so long before it becomes a safety hazard because of rain deterioration and vermin.”
Penn Waste, which was founded by Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, has lost $800,000 a month since October on its recycling business, Davidson said. The company reported $75 million in revenue in 2017, according to the Central Penn Business Journal.
To make up for the loss, Penn Waste has imposed a sustainability fee on its commercial accounts and plans to ask municipalities to renegotiate their rates in their contracts.
Both Davidson and Warner say that the sudden breakdown of the global recycling market could reshape the industry for good, potentially changing the way that municipalities collect recyclables and pass costs on to consumers.
A Problem with Global Reach
For decades, China has been the leading importer. The country consumed more than 50 percent of the world’s recycled paper and plastic in 2016, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association.
As Chinese demand for recycled goods grew in the 1990s and 2000s, American recycling programs flourished. Revenues from selling recycled waste always exceeded the cost of transporting, processing and packaging it, Warner said, which allowed municipalities, including Harrisburg, to haul away residents’ recyclables without charging them.
But the economic equation that supports that model has deteriorated in the past year. The very systems that allowed haulers to collect more recyclables also harmed the quality of their exports over time.
Single-stream recycling programs, for instance, which allow consumers to toss all of their recyclables into the same collection bin, proliferated in the 2000s. They allowed haulers to collect more recyclable waste than ever before, but it was also contaminated with growing amounts of food waste, non-recyclable plastics and medical waste.
“The U.S. got very sloppy,” Warner said. “We made it too convenient and didn’t educate consumers enough about what was and wasn’t recyclable.”
Chinese importers warned American firms in 2013 that they needed better quality control. But American contamination levels continued to rise, reaching an all-time high of 20 percent last year. At that rate, one in five items in a processed bale of recycling is non-recyclable trash.
China’s latest response came in November, when it announced that it would not accept any material with a contamination level above .5 percent starting in 2018. The decree has disqualified almost all of America’s recycled waste from import.
With the Chinese market suddenly inaccessible, haulers like Penn Waste have begun to seek out other Asian and domestic markets to sell the recyclables that they sort and bale at their plant in York County.
But the few substitute markets that do exist are already saturated by larger firms, such as Dallas-based Waste Management, the largest sanitation company in the world.
“Smaller, regional [companies] can’t compete because they have such a small volume,” said LCSWMA spokesperson Kathryn Sandoe. “Waste Management might be able to sell the material at such a low rate because they have to move it, but then a company like Penn Waste has nowhere to move theirs.”
The New Cost of Business
Sooner or later, the chaos racking the recycling industry will bring a cost to consumers.
Davidson and Warner warned that the era of “free recycling” will come to an end and haulers may have to move away from single-stream collection programs.
LCSWMA, which manages waste material brought collected by private haulers, used to sell recyclable materials to Penn Waste for $4 per ton. Now, they’re paying Penn Waste $40 per ton to take the waste off their hands.
Warner said that the loss of recycling markets won’t eat into the authority’s $85 million annual revenues. Penn Waste is absorbing most of the costs now, since it owns the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) that sorts and bales recyclables for export.
Davidson said that Penn Waste may have to move to a fee-based model for processing recycling, which would spread cost out over collectors and residential and commercial customers.
Penn Waste is bound by contracts with its municipal account holders, which usually last for terms of three to five years, Davidson said. If they don’t renegotiate rates now, municipalities will see them skyrocket to retroactively compensate Penn Waste for the revenue it lost on their accounts.
Harrisburg may be the only exception. The city’s $190 per-ton dumping fee at LCSWMA is double what the rest of Dauphin County pays, due to terms of a financial restructuring deal in which Harrisburg sold the incinerator to the waste authority.
As a result, it’s unlikely that the cost of recycling will ever eclipse the cost of dumping Harrisburg’s trash at the incinerator.
“One of benefits, if you can call it that, of having such high tipping fees is that we can incentivize people to recycle as much as possible because it’s better for the city financially,” said Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse. “But in [a township] with reasonable tipping fees, it may not make sense to pay exorbitant recycling costs to Penn Waste.”
Papenfuse said Harrisburg residents should take as much recycling out of the waste stream as they can. But according to Warner, that emphasis on diversion is what led to the current crisis in the American recycling industry.
“It’s not grounded in reality,” Warner said. “Communities are preaching diversion, and the only thing they’re getting is more trash in the recycling bin, which is hurting recycling.”
He and Davidson said that consumer education will be key to repairing the industry. Warner said that many consumers believe that all plastics are recyclable, even though disposable shopping bags, food packaging and food containers are considered contaminants.
Warner also said that single-stream recycling may be replaced by dual-stream programs that allow processors to extract valuable materials more easily. Papenfuse said that Harrisburg could consider dual-stream recycling if the convenience of single-stream becomes cost-prohibitive.
Watch a tour of Penn Waste’s Materials Recovery Facility to learn how recyclables are sorted, baled and prepared for export. Also, see this guide from LCSWMA to learn what is and isn’t recyclable. In Harrisburg, glass must be recycled in designated collection bins located throughout the city.
This article was corrected to clarify LCSWMA’s role as a waste manager, not a hauler, and to reflect that LCSWMA’s 2018 operating budget was $85 million, not $92 million.