When Joel Litman, president of the Paper Stock Industries (PSI) chapter of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), joined his family’s scrap paper recycling business almost 30 years ago, many people associated the word “recycling” with hippies and most did not even consider the definition of “sustainability,” he says.
“Back when I got in the business, it wasn’t as sophisticated and transparent as it is today,” Litman, president and co-owner of Texas Recycling/Surplus Inc., Dallas, says. “Recycling wasn’t as prominent as it is in today’s world.”
The longtime PSI member, who will end his two-year term as the organization’s president in the spring of 2014, says the recycling industry has certainly changed since he joined it in the early 1980s, and it has been for the better.
Formed in 1962, PSI is the national chapter of ISRI, Washington, D.C., a trade organization that represents for-profit companies that process, broker and consume scrap materials. Litman and PSI President-elect Cory Tomczyk, president and owner of IROW, Mosinee, Wis., discuss how PSI keeps up with the continuously progressing recycling industry while still benefitting its members.
Municipalities want, and continue to try, to make it more convenient for people to recycle, Litman says. Today, consumers are more aware of recycling, such as being able to identify the different labels on plastic products, he says. Curbside recycling programs and the capabilities of material recovery facilities (MRFs) have evolved over the years, too, helping to increase the type of commodities municipalities collect.
Litman says PSI plans to advance with the industry by “keeping current with the trends and times.”
He continues, “We’re seeing more blending of commodities with different companies, and I think PSI offers a lot as a resource for individuals and companies that are expanding that way.”
Tomczyk says when he started IROW 24 years ago, the Wisconsin-based waste and recycling collection company accepted only paper. He adds that the company had to move its plastic processing business out of the company’s main building because it was beginning to crowd out the paper operations.
Mixing materials to improve collection efficiencies makes the job more challenging for recyclers and mills, which is one obstacle Litman says he has recognized during his time as PSI president.
He explains, “With single-stream processing, what I’m seeing is the quality of the product is decreasing.” Litman adds that while single-stream collection might be great for the hauler, “unless you can make a quality product that someone can buy, collection just isn’t enough.”
Additionally, China’s Operation Green Fence has changed the way exporters meet China’s mixed plastic scrap demand. The Green Fence effort, launched in February 2013, strives to keep out undesirable material by closely monitoring incoming shipments of recyclables.
“How can a small recycler in northern Wisconsin understand the impacts of China on our national markets if I don’t have PSI? Reading about it is one part of understanding it; having people you can call up and talk to helps even more,” Tomczyk says.
Networking, Tomczyk says, is an “invaluable” aspect of being a PSI member and “just makes our industry better.
“The intangibles are impossible to quantify, and that’s the interaction with others in the field,” Tomczyk continues. “I interact with someone 10 times my size from California, and we’re all fighting the same battles, maybe on different scales, but it’s the same problems, and they might have figured something out that I haven’t.”
Litman says networking within the industry is a key component of PSI. “We need to stay in touch with one another to know what the challenges and trends are.”
There also are more women, young professionals and corporations to interact with in an industry that has been historically run by men and family-owned businesses, Litman adds. “At my first NARI (National Association of Recycling Industries, a predecessor of ISRI) conference in 1984, you didn’t see a lot of young people and women, and now there are a lot of younger faces and a lot more women involved in the industry, which is really exciting to see. You see fewer family businesses and independent businesses in it and more large corporations.”
As the recycling industry grows, Litman says it is important for PSI to maintain an updated guideline of grade specifications that are used in the buying and selling of recovered fiber. PSI members have the opportunity to vote on grade proposals and to take part in the grade approval process. “If you want to be a voice at the table and to have an impact on grades, you’ve got to be a member of PSI,” Tomczyk says.
Some grades are new, Litman says, such as aseptic packaging, which includes milk and juice drink box containers, while other grades are gone, such as CPO (computer printout) and also tabulated cards. “You don’t see tab cards anymore unless someone is cleaning out a warehouse that hasn’t been touched in 40 years,” he says.
Litman adds that integrating new grade specifications and eliminating old ones is PSI’s responsibility. “We’ve kept up with the times by keeping up our grade specifications. We’re stewards of those specifications, which are the guidelines mill buyers and sellers use to conduct their business every day.”
For the first time, PSI hosted a one-day summit this year focusing on grade specifications, in particular old corrugated containers (OCC). On April 17, the OCC Summit featured panelists from various facets of the OCC supply chain. They discussed the ability to pack and sell the grade as defined as well as what mills need, where more tonnage will be found in the future and what problems loom ahead for processors and consumers.
Litman says it was at the OCC Summit where he learned an important reality of the industry: Each mill, operator and owner does something different than the next. “There’s really no cookie-cutter formula on how businesses operate. Everyone does something different that may seem the same at the surface, but when you drill down, they’re all unique,” Litman explains.
He continues, “At the OCC Summit, we heard how quality is important and generation is important. There’s no clear-cut answer how to rectify some of the challenges in the industry because every mill has a recipe of how to make a product. Paper recycling is pretty consistent, and then when you start talking to people, you realize it is, but it’s not.”
Supporting safety is one area that is fairly consistent among mills and a matter PSI openly discusses.
Tomczyk and Litman say ISRI’s Safety Consulting Services are worth PSI’s membership dues alone, considering recycling is one of the most dangerous industries in the United States, Litman adds. Through the program, safety professionals visit scrap yards and recycling facilities to help identify and solve safety issues before they result in an accident. ISRI representatives also train employees and help to prepare and modify written policies for the violations most often cited by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), according to PSI’s website.
“If you get something back that will increase safety at your plant or save the expense of an injury, that right there is worth the membership itself,” Litman says.
As for where the recycling industry is headed, Litman says it will continue to expand and innovate. “There’s always going to be a demand and need of recycling. With sustainability, it’s going to be around forever, and that’s what’s exciting about it,” he says.
Regarding his participation in PSI, Litman says, “I’ve always had a passion for the industry and the recycling business and I look at it as a way to give back.”
Tomczyk says that as the industry progresses, PSI will be there every step of the way. “The industry is not going to stop changing and evolving, and PSI is going to continue to be in a position to help people through those transitions. PSI is very valuable, and especially in the state of change and challenges that our industry faces. I think that we need to keep it strong and bring the message to others in our industry the benefits of coming and being a part of the organization.”
The author is associate editor of Recycling Today and can be reached via email at email@example.com.