Why Single Stream Recycling Can Now Cost You More Than Waste

There are normally two factors that incentivize businesses to recycle more of their waste; reducing their environmental impact, and saving money on their waste bills. But with new challenging market conditions, this isn’t always the case anymore…

The Rise of Single Stream Recycling

Since its origination in the 1990s, single stream recycling has been a popular option for businesses that want to recycle, without having to install a wide variety of containers for each recyclable material. By collecting paper, cardboard, plastics and metals together in one bin, nationwide recycling stats jumped because it was so much easier for businesses and households to do.

It also used to be a cost-effective way for haulers to handle recycling, because they only had to run one truck to collect all recyclables together, rather than different trucks for each material.

The Costs of Processing

However, the costs come in the sorting of this jumbled mixture of recyclable materials back into its original fractions. This process is carried out at large industrial facilities that use a combination of mechanical and manual sorting methods, connected by a series of conveyor belts, to separate out the mix. These facilities are expensive to run, requiring a lot of staff to cover the sorting lines, and expensive, energy-demanding mechanical equipment.

Previously, the costs of collecting the recyclables and running these sorting facilities were covered by the market value of the sorted materials. These materials were sold into both national and international markets, with China accounting for almost 50% of all trade. There has always been a healthy demand for all of the recyclables that facilities produced and commodities prices were strong as a result. This allowed haulers to charge a reduced rate for collecting recyclables compared to trash.

Challenging New Market Conditions

Market problems started in mid-2017, when China announced that they would implement an import ban on mixed papers and most plastics – two of the common products of single stream recyclables. They followed this up by tightening contamination standards for the remaining materials that they accepted to unattainable levels.

These two moves have had a huge impact on operators that provide single stream recycling services. Many sorting plants have lost the primary buyer for their end product materials, and even those that didn’t sell directly to China have suffered because the overall market has shrunk so significantly that supply is far outstripping demand, driving commodity prices down.

Secondary markets in the rest of the world can’t cope with the volumes of materials that China used to accept, and have recently started to limit the amount of scrap that they accept.

In addition, sorting plants must run slower to reach the higher quality standards that buyers can now demand. This means that they’re producing less output for the same time and processing costs. They are also having to dispose of more contaminated materials that previously were accepted within the stream, further pushing up processing costs.

In short, this means that many haulers must increase their single stream recycling collection prices to cover their increased costs of sorting and the loss of revenue from their recyclable materials. This leaves some companies and municipalities having to pay more for their single stream recycling than they are for their waste to be collected.

As an example of the huge scale of the price swings, the city of Bakersfield in California went from earning an average of $25 per ton for its single stream recycling before the summer, to paying $70 or more by September 2018.

Action Points for Your Business

The key to protect your business from increased collection costs is to show the quality of your single stream recycling. NWA can provide you with a definitive list of acceptable items from your hauler, which can be used for staff training.

Acceptable items may vary from state to state, or even between municipalities or haulers, so NWA will provide you with tailored advice for each of your sites so that training can be appropriately delivered.

Two of the biggest problems with single stream recycling quality are food contamination and ‘wishcycling’, where people put non-recyclable items into the container because they feel that they ‘should’ be recyclable. Eliminating these causes of contamination will improve the quality of your output, making it easier to fight any price rise demands.

How NWA Helps our Customers

Although there is little we can do where the entire market mandates a change, NWA consistently monitors the markets and our haulers. If a hauler raises their individual rates, then we go back out to the market to see which other haulers still place value in the commodity, or who has better processes that result in a cleaner end product that generates better value and is more environmentally beneficial.

We have also added a Certified Zero Waste Coordinator to our team, whose specific role it is to keep up to date with Zero Waste initiatives and legislation, finding opportunities for our customers to continue to reduce their environmental impacts and costs, despite these challenging market conditions.

The Future of Single Stream Recycling

The collection and sorting infrastructure for single stream recycling is now well developed and heavily invested in throughout the country, so it’s very unlikely that haulers will shift back to multi-stream collection systems.

Although current market conditions are challenging and some haulers are struggling to balance their costs, there are two likely positive outcomes for the long-term. The first is that investment in domestic recycling facilities is increasing, so that high value materials can be recycled within the U.S. market. The second is that the quality of the recyclables on the marketplace is improving. This allows for more sustainable, closed loop recycling options, which benefit the economy, the environment, and ultimately your company’s bottom line.