The Global Trends That May Affect Your Waste Bills

The North American recycling market is subject to pressure from a wide range of sources; both domestic and international. 2020 is turning out to be another turbulent year for the sector, as the impacts of several geopolitical events are felt back at home.

In this article, our experts round up the four key trends that we predict could affect businesses’ recycling and waste bills – especially if you don’t have an experienced waste management firm fighting in your corner.

Global Recycling Markets Experience a Further Tightening

Since China banned the import of a wide range of recyclable materials in July 2017, the impact has ricocheted around the rest of the world. A number of lower-income countries, primarily in Southeast Asia initially picked up the surplus of waste materials originating from the US and other Western countries. However, this additional volume overwhelmed processing facilities and turned villages into dumpsites.

Many countries have now closed their doors to these materials, as their governments realized the scale of the environmental damage that they were inflicting. Although the materials were traded as “recyclable”, in most cases they were too poor quality for the facilities to safely deal with.

This dramatic shrinking of the export market has disrupted the recycling model that recycling companies had been following for decades and has left the US with a material surplus that is driving up costs.

What lies ahead

Due to a drastically restricted export market, more haulers will be forced to charge their customers for the collection and processing of recyclable materials domestically. Domestic processing has higher quality standards, forcing operators of sorting facilities to slow down their processing rate, increase automation or increase staffing levels, all of which increase the financial burden for businesses. In some areas, this is resulting in recycling costs rising above landfill rates.

The increase in quality standards, together with the closure of sorting facilities has resulted in some haulers no longer offering single stream recycling. It is likely that this will be seen more widely in 2020, as lower-value materials become increasingly harder to shift.

Finally, some haulers are dealing with the low-grade material surplus by sending it to landfill sites that will dispose of it for less than it would cost them to process.

The Plastics Problem Grows

Global production of plastics was at 311 million tons in 2014, a 38 percent increase from 2004. In a Business-As-Usual scenario, this figure is expected to triple again by 2050, to 1,124 million tons.

The global problem is that much of this plastic is not recycled – or can’t be recycled – and ends up polluting the environment. The United Nations Environment Program compared plastic pollution to an “epidemic”, with “an estimated 110m tons of plastic now found in the oceans”.

Even before China’s ban, only 9 percent of plastics in the US were recycled, while 15.5 percent were incinerated. Since then, the US has been suffering from an accumulation of plastic waste which is resulting in increased costs to consumers and businesses, the closure of recycling facilities, and decreased plastic diversion.

What lies ahead

The import bans have forced the US and other developed countries to confront their plastics problem and has increased public awareness. This presents US waste management firms with a significant challenge, but also with a potential opportunity to find new, sustainable processing methods.

In the interim, some haulers that also operate landfill sites are disposing of a proportion of their plastics tonnage, which for them generates an additional revenue stream.

It is possible that the incurred crisis may have an upside in the form of expanding processing facilities in North America, forcing manufacturers to make their products more recyclable, and spurring policy makers to ban harder to recycle and single-use plastics. This is already being seen across the US, with eight states placing a ban on single-use plastic bags, Vermont banning single-use plastics from July 2020, and a number of cities banning Styrofoam (otherwise known as EPS, or expanded polystyrene foam).

In the short-term, businesses are likely to see an increase in collection costs, and a possible restriction in the number of different plastic polymers that can be collected for recycling. In the mid- to long-term, the situation will slowly improve as domestic processors come online and advances are made in the recyclability of packaging material.

Further Market Consolidation Likely

The waste industry is labor-intensive, and it has become an increasingly challenging task for firms to find and retain skilled workers; particularly drivers. Driver shortages and challenging market conditions, further intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, are placing an inordinate strain on many smaller waste companies, making it increasingly hard for them to compete. This makes them prime targets for acquisition by the waste majors.

Publicly traded companies already account for 60 percent of the waste management sector, and industry insiders predict that their overall market share could increase to 70 percent within the next decade. One major deal expected to complete in 2020 is the takeover of Advanced Disposal by Waste Management.

What lies ahead

Some smaller businesses that are trying to avoid acquisition are doing so by vertically integrating their markets and streamlining their operations. Often this involves investing in additional areas of the waste management business, such as transfer stations, landfills, or MRFs (recycling sorting facilities). However, with high interest rates, the cost of financing these operations may be prohibitive for many companies.

A waste market with fewer players, particularly at the local level, can create considerable challenges for business customers. The major hauler in the area often feels that it can act, and price its customers, with impunity, since there is little to no competition to compete for the service. This unsurprisingly leads to a degradation in customer service and a gradual increase in waste and recycling fees.

Technology Offers Innovative Solutions

The waste industry has been slow to modernize, but technology is slowly infiltrating the sector with the purpose of increasing operating efficiencies, improving workplace safety, lowering costs and improving customer service.

What lies ahead

The Internet of Things (IoT) in conjunction with smart sensors in containers is becoming more commonly utilized across the waste industry. The smart sensors report fill levels so that route managers can schedule collections only when a defined level has been surpassed or can verify that a container has been successfully tipped.

Haulers are increasingly using vehicle telematics solutions to improve route efficiencies and offer greater customer service by, for example, providing customers with notice before making collections, or making live changes to route schedules based on traffic conditions.

For recycling sorting facilities, or MRFs, automated picking technologies will gradually improve until they can effectively reduce the labor requirements of the facilities, and increase the quality of the material output.

All of these technologies have the potential to reduce operating costs for waste management firms. The question is whether any of those savings will be passed onto the consumer.

With volatile market conditions comes a need for businesses to improve the quality of their recyclable materials, and ensure they have a solid relationship with their waste management partner. An experienced waste management firm will navigate these conditions for your business and ensure that no matter what, you’ll always be getting the best service and price for your waste operations.

Start a conversation with us today to evaluate the efficiency of your current waste operations and to learn how we can protect your business.
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