REcycling containers

File photo. Old and new - the big blue recycling containers, freshly delivered and empty, stood in stark contrast to an old, smaller bin, on Ransom Road in Athens in early November 2016.

Over the last several years, the value of recycled and recyclable materials has been decreasing nationwide and around the globe. In tandem with this decline, China announced last summer that it will no longer be accepting certain waste materials from foreign nations, a decision that has carried global implications.

Athens-Hocking Recycling Centers (AHRC) has not been immune to these changes, though the center transports little of its recyclable products overseas, according to Executive Director Bruce Underwood. “I think every recycling center across the country is feeling it,” he said of the value downslide, adding that as a result of China “banning some materials, we’re (domestic recycling centers in general) sending a lot less overseas.” 

Though not a direct influence locally, China’s new restrictions on “foreign waste” have impacts nationwide. Roughly one-third of all recyclable materials in the U.S. are shipped out of the country, and nearly half of those exports goes to China, according to NPR. “For decades, China has used recyclables from around the world to supply its manufacturing boom. But [last] summer, it declared that this ‘foreign waste’ includes too many other non-recyclable materials that are ‘dirty,’ even ‘hazardous,’” NPR reported last fall. In its filing with the World Trade Organization last July, China listed 24 types of solid wastes it would ban to protect its “environmental interests and people’s health.” 

These new regulations have led recycling centers across the U.S. and the globe to seek an alternative now that it can’t be shipped to its once-largest market overseas. According to an article in “The Conversation,” a public issues website, late last year, 87 percent of the recycled plastics collected in the 27 countries in the European Union (pre-2016) was either directly or indirectly exported to China, and Japan also exports much of its recycled plastic there. According to a CNN report, U.S. industry that sends scrap plastics and waste material to China for recycling grosses about $5 billion annually and is the country’s sixth largest export to the Asian superpower.

Locally, AHRC has not been directly disadvantaged by these global changes because the non-profit mostly ships within the Midwest, “but at the same time, the global markets affect the markets here,” AHRC Director Underwood said.

“That big of a hit certainly has an impact,” he added, explaining that “since about October” the AHRC’s losses have been significant, despite shipping domestically. He said he expects the non-profit to only make about 50 percent of the revenue for materials sold this year as in years past. “We’re still sending (recycled material) to the same places; it’s just less valuable,” Underwood explained.

In addition to new international restrictions, a variety of other reasons explain why the value of recyclables has been on the downturn, “ranging from global trade policy to the decline in newspaper readership,” David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, told USA Today last spring. In countries around the world, “there has been a decrease in demand” for recyclable materials as growth rates in foreign countries have “leveled off,” Biderman said in the article. In addition, manufacturers no longer need much reclaimed plastic, as low oil prices have made it cheaper to produce new plastic bottles, and packaging producers have figured out how to use less raw material by making bottles and cans thinner, USA Today reported.

“The value of materials certainly plays a role” in the success of a recycling center, Underwood said, and AHRC certainly has felt the impacts of these diminishing values. Still, Underwood said, the decrease isn’t necessarily indicative of a new norm. The markets for materials like reclaimed plastics and glass “continually fluctuate because they’re bought and sold like any other commodities,” Underwood said. The struggle of recycling centers nationally “certainly does not help us at all,” however, he acknowledged. 

Other programs around the nation have limited or stopped accepting certain materials in response to market trends, and Underwood said he’s heard of other facilities shutting down or laying off workers. “There’s surpluses at paper mills,” as well as facilities that process other materials like metals and glass, Underwood said.

“We’re still struggling… still trying to make sense of it and just figure out how to plan for the future” and mitigate losses, Underwood said. “There’s many, many factors” that have an influence on the revenue intake of AHRC, he added. For example, he said, in the past when fuel prices have gone up, commodity prices have gone up as well.

“Now when the prices go down, the fuel prices are continuing to go up,” so the centers are spending more on fuel and earning less on product than before.

Seasonal factors also affect the revenues, according to Underwood. “We service Ohio University, so therefore when the student population goes down” so does the rate of collection for reclaimed materials.”

UNDERWOOD LATER NOTED, “One of the biggest things facilities deal with is contamination.” People have a tendency to recycle “optimistically,” he explained, adding things that they think should be recycled without knowing whether or not the center can actually take it. “There’s certain materials that people put in there that may or may not be recyclable but that our center isn’t designed to handle… It’s a cost for us so it’s a contamination,” Underwood said. 

These include items such as garden hoses and certain types of plastic, which may be recyclable at some facilities but cannot be processed by AHRC; neither can non-recyclable materials such as Styrofoam and clothing, yet some residents still include these things in the recycling bin.

“That really helps us out if people do the the right thing and put the right materials in there,” Underwood said. “Depending on the level of contamination, it could mean rejected loads where we don’t get paid for the material.” 

In order to avoid having a load of material rejected, Underwood said, “we have to spend time and effort to get them as clean as possible,” which means clearing out bits of unacceptable substances, after which a load still may be deemed unacceptable. 

“Whatever’s left over from our process we have to send to the landfill,” Underwood said, so when a good load of material is contaminated by a non-recyclable substance, it often ends up in a landfill anyways despite the wasted effort of trying to clean it.

Residents should consult the AHRC website for a list of materials the AHRC can take, Underwood said. “Usually I say if in doubt, just throw it out,” he said. “Sometimes it gets really confusing but to take that initiative and say ‘is this recycling?’ … not making those assumptions” is critical.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged, the Athens Hocking Recycling Centers will have to adapt to the changing economy within the recycling industry. “To deal with the surplus domestically, and just as a whole,” Underwood said, AHRC will need to figure out the markets for reclaimed/recyclable materials in this area.

“I think we’re going to have to look at our pricing,” Underwood added. “We’re going to have to build some kind of a mechanism into our contracts” to account for any losses in the pricing scheme for AHRC services.

“I do think that will take some time” to work out the logistics, Underwood said, but it’s not just about turning a profit. “It’s about infrastructure here but it’s also about jobs, too,” Underwood said, adding that he hopes the ever-changing markets will “start turning upward” soon.

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