Some Haulers Want to Landfill your Recycling. This is Why.

Your staff have been trained to separate recyclables from the trash, and you’ve got your containers or compactors for each; one for trash that goes to landfill, and the other for single stream recyclables. Cardboard, paper, plastics and metal containers all go in here, then get sorted and recycled into secondary materials, reducing the environmental impact of your operations.

Simple, right? Sadly, it’s not always quite as simple as it seems and with current market conditions lowering the value of recyclables, companies across the U.S. can’t always trust that the recyclable materials they put in the single stream containers will actually be recycled as intended, and as haulers are contracted to do.

What Makes Some Haulers Landfill Recyclables?

Surely, it’s in the hauler’s interest to treat these more valuable materials as recyclables, rather than simply tipping them straight into a landfill site?

The problem is, that for some haulers operating in certain states, it can actually be more expensive for them to sort those recyclables than to just dispose of them to landfill.

But why is this the case? Firstly, many of the major waste companies (like WM and others) own their own landfill sites. This means that the rates they ‘charge’ themselves to dump materials at these sites can be incredibly low. And they benefit from having a well utilized landfill site because this lowers their running costs per unit of waste.

Secondly, many states charge a low tax for disposal of waste to landfill, or none at all. This tax exists in some states to disincentivize the use of landfills (which is environmentally the worst treatment method for waste). Haulers pass on these taxes to their customers and charge them more to dispose of materials to trash. The intention is that this encourages businesses to recycle more of their waste. But where the taxes don’t exist, there’s very little financial pressure on either party to change their practices.

And thirdly, sorting single stream recycling can be an expensive operation. Sorting is carried out in large industrial units known as MRFs (Materials Recovery Facilities) and these units require a lot of equipment, staff, and energy to run. The mix of single stream recycling materials passes over a series of conveyor belts and undergoes a mixture of mechanical and human sorting. The end result is a number of individual material streams that can be sold to recycling plants to create new products.

Challenging Market Conditions

This problem is currently being exacerbated by market conditions that are reducing commodity prices. Historically, the U.S. has sent the majority of recyclable materials to China. At the beginning of 2018, the Chinese government imposed an import ban on lower grades of recyclable materials, effectively preventing most cardboards, papers and plastics from being sent there. They then imposed such strict contamination levels that no exporter had a chance of meeting them.

Because around half of U.S. recyclable materials was purchased by China, there is now a surplus of supply in the country, and not enough demand from other countries, or within domestic markets, to process them. This has caused commodity prices to crash through the floor.

What Does This Mean for Your Recyclables?

Previously, the value of the recyclable materials covered the additional costs of sorting them, and delivered the hauler a profit compared to disposing of them to landfill. For some haulers operating in some states, this is no longer the case.

As a result, some haulers are officially requesting that they be allowed to dispose of their recyclables, because the processing costs exceed the income from sale of the materials. Other haulers may attempt to cut corners to save some money, disposing of more contaminated loads of single stream recycling straight to landfill. This means that they are still hauling the recyclables on a separate truck, maintaining the appearance that they are treating them differently, but when they get back to their site, it all goes in the same hole as the trash.

How NWA Protects Your Business

NWA’s waste experts are constantly monitoring our haulers to ensure their compliance with the terms of our contracts. This includes reviewing disposal tickets to ensure that the right treatment method is used for each waste stream.

We also keep a close eye on the markets across the country to see how changes in commodity prices may affect our haulers. If the market mandates a change and makes the cost of treatment of recyclables exceed revenues for an entire state or region, then there is little anyone can do in the short-term. However, if an individual hauler decides to dispose of recyclables to landfill, then we will immediately go back to market to see which other haulers still place value in the commodity, and in finding the most environmentally beneficial solution for your waste.