Recycling industry hurt by low commodity prices, high processing costs

Union photo by Andy Hallman

Clinton Morrison sorts plastics to be crushed and recycled at Connelly Recycling in Fairfield.
Union photo by Andy Hallman Clinton Morrison sorts plastics to be crushed and recycled at Connelly Recycling in Fairfield.

The recycling industry is going through tumultuous changes.

Recycling companies are finding it harder to market recycled items now that China has drastically cut its importation of recyclables. According to David Schaab, marketing manager of Waste Management that has contracts with cities in Jefferson, Washington and Henry counties, China has already taken major steps to limit imported paper and plastic recycling, and this has sent shockwaves through the industry. He said that China was until recently accepting 30 percent of recyclables from across the globe.

In April 2017, China announced it would implement strict standards on the importation of recycled materials. It would stop importing mixed paper and mixed plastics altogether, and would require that future shipments of recyclables contain no more than 0.5 percent contaminants (non-recyclables).

“China’s new policies have been implemented in response to their aggressive new environmental goals, which include creating their own recycling collection programs,” stated a news bulletin from Waste Management. “China has announced a plan to eliminate imports of all post-consumer recyclables by 2021, and they appear to be taking steps to move down this path.”

Schaab said China’s new rules have effectively “destroyed the market value of most recyclables, while at the same time increasing the expense of sorting the same materials.”

“We are experiencing the lowest commodity values in decades, while constantly increasing the cost of sorting,” Schaab said.

Who purchases recycled materials now? Schaab said that most of the market for recyclables are domestic producers. Almost no plastic goes to China today and only a limited amount of paper and cardboard is still sent there.


China’s actions aren’t the only thing that’s disturbing recycling. Recycle Across America’s website states that recycling is in a serious crisis caused by a large amount of contamination with trash. The website says this is because of inconsistent labels being used on recycling bins, making people think an item can be recycled when in fact it cannot.

David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, told USA Today in 2017 that the industry had been declining for a number of years for several reasons. Low oil prices made it cheaper to produce new plastic bottles, so recycled plastic was not as valuable. Packaging companies figured out how to make bottles and cans thinner, too, obviating the need for as much raw material.

Meanwhile, more and more cities have gone to a single-stream recycling system in order to make recycling easier. Single-stream recycling means a resident puts all recycled material – whether plastic, paper, tin or glass – in a single container as opposed to sorting it into bins. Making it so easy to recycle has increased the tonnage going to recycling centers, but some people are trying to recycle too much. They end up putting refuse in the recycling bin that properly belongs in the trash.

“Contamination is recycling’s public enemy No. 1,” Schaab said. “Recycling isn’t difficult – just rinse the items to be recycled – no need to peel labels or pry off cap rings from bottles.”

Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy said Fairfield switched from segregated to single-stream recycling about 10 years ago, and saw an increase in recycling of 70 percent.

Curt Connelly runs Connelly Recycling Inc. in Fairfield. He said the recycling industry is hurting like never before. He said things have gotten especially bad in the last two years, when commodity prices for every recyclable item have tanked. He said that if it were not for governments subsidizing recycling, it wouldn’t be able to survive because the market for recycled goods is so weak.

Even a once sought-after product like recycled steel is in the dumps. Connelly remembers when it went for as high as $95 a ton about 25 years ago. Today a ton of recycled steel only fetches $40.

Connelly has contracts with local governments such as Jefferson County and the cities of Fairfield, Libertyville, Packwood, Batavia and Maharishi Vedic City. At his recycling center on the north side of Fairfield, Connelly and his staff of five employees sort the recycling into plastics, tins, glass, cardboard and paper. Removing the tin is the easy part because it sticks to a magnet, so all Connelly has to do is run the recyclables under a magnet and all the tin is lifted off the conveyor belt.

Story of glass

Glass is the most delicate recycled item, and Connelly’s crew tries to sort it as soon as they pick it up on the curb so they don’t break it and get cut. Perhaps the greatest irony in this process is that even though glass requires the most care, it is also the least valuable commodity. Connelly has a broker who buys his plastic, tin, cardboard and paper, but not his glass. He has to give it away because there’s no market for it. But he takes the glass nonetheless, and it is repurposed as fiberglass.

Schaab added that glass has never had a positive value as a recycled item, costing more to process than it can be sold for. However, he said the value in recycling glass is not so much monetary as it is environmental. That’s because converting sand into glass is energy intensive, and it produces lots of hazardous waste as a byproduct. Using recycled glass requires 10 percent of the energy required to create it from sand.

Despite the tough times the industry has fallen on, Connelly said the amount of recycling he handles continues to grow. That’s especially true for cardboard, which he receives more of than any other recycled commodity.

“People love to recycle,” he said.

Tips for public

Connelly only wishes that the public would remember to do a couple of easy things that would make his job so much more enjoyable: 1) Wash containers, especially milk jugs, so they don’t reek; and 2) Remove the lids from plastic bottles, not only because it makes them easier to crush but also because the lids are considered a contaminant since they’re made of a different material than their containers.

Schaab adds to that list plastic bags, a frequent contaminant that must be kept out of recycling because it can muck up the machines.

Each recycling service might be slightly different, but as a general rule, here is a list of items that can be recycled, according to Waste Management:

• Plastic bottles and containers

• Food and beverage cans made of tin

• Paper

• Flattened cardboard and paperboard

• Food and beverage cartons

• Glass bottles and containers

Here is a list of items that should not be recycled:

• Food or liquids

• Foam cups or containers

• Clothing, furniture, carpet

• Plastic bags or film

• Batteries and needles (safety hazard for employees)