The Pandemic Has Made the Recycling Industry's Job Even Harder

Hit with closures, contaminations, and low resale values, it's a tough business right now.

aluminum cans

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The United States recycling industry has had a rough few years, ever since China announced it would stop accepting imports of recyclable goods as of January 2018. Suddenly recyclers were scrambling to find a market for low-value materials. Then the coronavirus hit and the situation got even more dire.

An article in the Los Angeles Times describes an industry that's struggling to keep afloat. Residential waste output has increased by 15-20%, while commercial waste has decreased by 15%. This has translated to a major financial hit for recyclers, since commercial clients are more profitable and "usually pay by volume of material."

Megan Calfas of the LA Times quoted LA Sanitation director Enrique Zaldivar: "'For any business, one less customer is always a negative impact,' Zaldivar said. In Los Angeles, 'there’s somewhere in the order of 5,000 businesses that no longer have trash service or have discontinued temporarily, hopefully not permanently.'"

Numerous recycling centers around the city have closed, due to COVID-19 fears: "During the pandemic, only five out of 17 facilities that accept recyclables in Los Angeles have been fully operating." Large numbers of people have been pushed to use the remaining centers that are open, and people will wait up to 75 minutes in slow-moving traffic to redeem recycling. 

Once redeemed, the question of what happens to it all is unclear. Lance Klug, a public information officer with CalRecycle, the state of California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, told Treehugger that there's been a spike in contamination of recyclables by COVID-related waste, which has the unfortunate effect of sending everything to landfill: 

"Cities and counties across the state report non-recyclable personal protective equipment contaminating curbside recycling collection and the environment ... It’s clear that increases in single-use disposables will temporarily increase the amount of trash sent to landfills."

As for the recyclable goods that do get exported to countries other than China (such as Malaysia), there's no way of tracking where exactly they go or what happens to them, despite the fact that those same exports are categorized within California as being recycled. 

The crisis has also pushed manufacturers to embrace lower-value materials, mainly virgin plastic, since the price of oil is so low. Calfas writes, "It’s currently cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin PET plastic instead of recycled material. The gap between the two has grown significantly throughout the pandemic."

It doesn't make financial sense to pay a premium for recycled material, but as Klug pointed out, there is an associated environmental cost that will have to paid at some point: "[Choosing] lower cost virgin materials increases the environmental and health damage to California from mining and refining these raw materials, as well as the costs of pollution and landfilling once their products are discarded."

At least the state government acknowledges this conundrum and recently passed bill AB 793 that will require manufacturers to include 50% recycled material in beverage containers by 2030. (The percentage requirements starts at 15% in 2022 and increases to 25% by 2025.) This incentive will boost the market for recyclables at least somewhat and send the important message that recycling only works if people and companies are willing to buy the resulting product.

Klug echoed this when asked by Treehugger what people can do to become better recyclers at this difficult time. "Help support markets for recycled material by purchasing products with recycled content whenever possible." Other helpful actions include choosing reusables over single-use disposables, striving to reduce waste, and knowing what materials are accepted in local recycling programs. "Put only clean, accepted materials in recycling bins. When in doubt if something is recyclable or not, find out!"

It's crucial not to contaminate the blue bin with COVID-related waste. Klug says this adds cost to the system because it has to be cleaned out, causes safety hazards when things get caught and workers have to pull them out, and makes recyclables less able to be sold to manufacturers. In a worst case scenario, the load doesn't get recycled at all.

It sounds like California is on the right track with bill AB 793, but with it comes a need to improve in-state processing and remanufacturing of the materials we generate. To quote Klug:

"You often hear about a closed loop economy – communities transform their local waste into a resource to manufacture new products rather than relying on the extraction of natural resources. It creates jobs, reduces pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and keeps local economies more resilient and self-sufficient."

It's a good goal to keep in mind as we emerge from this pandemic and see more clearly the many ways in which our consumption habits need to change. If we want our recycling to be more effective, then we have to do a better job of it and prioritize the purchase of recycled goods when making in-store decisions.

View Article Sources
  1. Calfas, Megan. "A Struggling Recycling Industry Faces New Crisis With Coronavirus". Los Angeles Times, 2020.