PPRC 2019: Fixing recycling

Panelists at the Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference in Chicago discuss some major problems with municipal recycling and how these issues can best be addressed.

Three panelists discuss ways to address challenges in municipal recycling during the 2019 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference Oct. 23-25 in Chicago.
Megan Smalley

In the past few decades, China’s demand for scrap commodities surged and made a tremendous impact particularly on the paper and plastic industry. Nearly a third of all residential recycling scrap went to China up until about two years ago when that nation began to shut its doors on scrap imports. 

China’s restrictions on scrap imports has certainly shaken the recycling industry—it has helped to reveal weaknesses in residential recycling streams. During a panel discussion titled Fixing Recycling at the 2019 Paper & Plastics Recycling Conference, which took place Oct. 23-25 in Chicago, moderator Holly Arthur, senior vice president at the Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), reported that the association has noticed the following signs of weakness with residential recycling:

  • collection systems vary by community without much consistency;
  • public confusion on what’s recyclable is leading to negative press;
  • municipal recycling infrastructure at material recovery facilities (MRFs) and recycling operations is built to handle lower quality materials; and 
  • long-term contracts treat recyclables as waste rather than commodities, which aren’t as adaptable to market fluctuation. 

Several panelists in the discussion offered their insights on how the recycling industry can improve in some of these areas. Panelists included Michael Hoffman, managing director at St. Louis-based Stifel; Miriam Holsinger, vice president of business intelligence and operations at Minneapolis-based Eureka Recycling; and Bradley Kelley, senior project engineer at McLean, Virginia-based Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc. 

Arthur posed some of the following questions to the panelists: 

What are actions that can be taken to improve the sustainability of recycling programs in the U.S.? 

Both Hoffman and Holsinger said aspirational recycling is an issue that the recycling industry needs to address in order to improve the sustainability of recycling programs in the U.S. 

Hoffman said the public and private recycling companies he works with typically spend up to $150 a ton on processing, yet in some cases up to 30 percent of the material these companies receive have no value and contamination is high.

“If you change contamination upfront, there will be huge change,” he said.

Holsinger added that recyclers need to be communicating with their communities on exactly what can and can’t be recycled. 

Kelley agreed that communication with communities is key to improving the sustainability of recycling programs. With that, he stressed the importance of simplification in recycling education messages.

“Simplification is very important,” he said. “People are confused on what goes in, what goes out. Also, when we talk residue, let’s be specific. Residue in a MRF is what goes out the back end that’s not collected. When they say there’s 30 percent residue, a lot of that is stuff they can’t mechanically or optimally collect at the MRF—that’s ‘wishcycling.’ Simplification would be huge.”

In addition, Holsinger said some government action such as minimum-content laws could help to improve the sustainability of recycling programs in the U.S. 

“If you really want to get something recycled, as a country, we need to say it is important to use this material in the products we make,” she said. “Even 10-percent-minimum-content laws would do wonders to drive the market to say, ‘yes, this is valuable [material], and we don’t want it to go in the garbage.” 

What role could legislation play in helping recycling?

Kelley said he wants to see a unified message about recycling at the federal level rather than a federal mandate about recycling. He said a unified message about recycling at the federal level could help citizens understand the industry better. At the state and local level, Kelley said regulations and mandates could help to address specific issues in different parts of the country. 

Hoffman said he thinks a lot of the current proposed legislation around recycling is coming about too quickly and lacks time for change. 

“You can use legislation and regulatory enforcement if you allow an appropriate window,” he said, adding that a lot of legislation today has very short deadlines for compliance. “It’s difficult to put up capital and make decisions, whether public or private, if you have too short of a window.” 

How can the industry connect the business side of the recycling conversation with the ideology side of the recycling conversation? 

Hoffman said he has noticed too many companies and governmental organizations worry about “fringe” issues with recycling. He said the industry needs to communicate to companies and governmental groups the importance of fixing major issues in recycling like cleaning up contamination before addressing fringe concerns, such as boosting electronics recycling goals. 

“If we go off on fringe conversations, we won’t talk about the main issues,” he said. “Let’s first figure that out, and then we can have an honest conversation on e-waste and other fringe issues.”

When it comes to connecting recycling ideology and recycling business, Holsinger said it’s important that recyclers learn what their communities care most about (ideologies) and explain to them how that ties to business. 

“You must figure out what [your community] cares about,” she said. 

For some communities, Holsinger said, creating local jobs is an important topic, so she communicates to them job opportunities and benefits offered at Eureka Recycling. Other communities care most about keeping material local, so she will communicate with those communities how about 80 percent of the material that Eureka Recycling processes stays in the state. 

“Know your community, figure out your values. It goes to connect with who you serve, who you work with and know their values,” she said. 

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