The National Recycling Coalition Inc. (NRC), based in Erie, Colorado, hosted an online forum Thursday, April 30, about recent changes in recycling markets. The forum included several speakers sharing their insights on how their respective commodity markets have been dealing with changes over the last few years and the impacts COVID-19 is having.
Ron Vance from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spoke about the growth of the America Recycles Summit over the last two years. In 2018, The EPA hosted the first America Recycles Summit, bringing together stakeholders from around the country and signing up 45 organizations to the America Recycles Pledge. Just one year later, more than 150 organizations have signed up.
After Vance spoke, industry professionals attending the webinar were asked to share their concerns surrounding COVID-19. Of the several hundred attendees, many said they were concerned about the current state of their businesses, while some said they were hopeful about the future.
To give more insight into the different secondary commodity markets, the NRC brought together a panel of experts from the various commodity sectors. First, Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) Chief Economist and Director of Commodities Joe Pickard spoke about the outlook for metals. As ferrous and nonferrous scrap pricing and demand are hurting because of the pandemic, Pickard said it’s important to watch going forward to see how long these impacts last.
“We’re closely tracking policy developments, both at the federal and state level,” Pickard said. However, he added that it’s too soon to estimate when things could start to trend upward.
Next up, Tison Keel and Joel Morales Jr. of IHS Markit spoke. Keel, the Houston-based director of PET, PTA & EO derivatives, and Morales, an executive director of polyolefins for the Americas who also is based in Houston, talked about COVID-19’s impact on the petrochemicals sector. Morales said companies should still make recycled content goals and, even if they aren’t reached, making it partially to that goal should still be praised because it means progress.
“Crude oil prices are going to remain low,” Keel said. He added that he believes that trend will continue for the next two years or so.
One attendee asked about more polyethylene terephthalate (PET) going into landfills and how that will impact demand. “Actually, PET demand has been very strong in March and April—think frozen food trays, bottled water, containers for home cleaners and sanitizers, PPE (personal protective equipment) face shields,” Keel said. “It is uncertain how long this demand will be sustained. Demands [for products] like carbonated soft drinks during the summer may be very low, and people may ultimately decide they have stocked up enough and with lost incomes, may stop buying,” he added.
Nina Butler of MORE recycling, Sonoma, California, spoke about the challenges facing plastics recycling. "This is the time that I think will define the leaders in sustainability," she said when speaking about how companies will move forward despite the challenges they currently face.
Demand for plastics is down, fewer people are recycling, and materials are harder to come by, she said.
Butler also spoke about the new Recycling Market Development Platform, which features detailed information on all commodities, not just plastics. According to its website, the platform was created "to illuminate circularity in action—companies participating in the emerging circular economy—and to connect people with tools and resources. Its a starting place."
Bill Moore of Moore & Associates, Atlanta, spoke about issues facing recovered paper, noting that overall paper production peaked in 2010 and has slowly come down since then.
COVID-19 has had an impact on recovered paper prices and demand, plus the volume of material coming in. Moore also said if the downturn in the economy lasts longer than a quarter, the impacts could be much more significant.
Before a Q&A to wrap up the forum, Scott Defife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, Arlington, Virginia, spoke about how glass recycling is doing right now.
“Over 90 percent are food and beverage or pharmaceutical containers,” Defife said when talking about recyclable glass products. While he said products have been flying of the shelves in stores, there’s a challenge because many of the bottle-redemption states are not enforcing those laws right now. He added that the problems extend to nonredemption states as well, with nearly half of glass containers never being collected for recycling.
As these speakers representing the various commodity sectors shared their outlooks on the current state of recyclables, they also expressed a common thought in that while it’s too soon to determine the long-term impacts of COVID-19, it also is a great time to prepare for the impacts of COVID-19 to be long term. As businesses reopen and people go back to work, things will start to trend upward, but no one knows yet how quickly, they said.