The recycling world is in upheaval, and recycling experts are looking for ways to sustain the industry for decades to come.
While recycling has been around for several decades, curbside recycling started hitting the streets about 20-30 years ago, said Steve Carr, director of sales effectiveness for Republic Services. Back then, residents would sort recyclables into different bins before placing them on the curb, where a truck with several compartments would pick up the materials.
"The materials were pretty clean, so when they came out, there wasn't very much processing that had to be done because all of the newsprint was together, all of the metals were together, plastics and cardboard," Carr said. "That was a pretty good system at the time, and we were just interested in grabbing the material at the time because we knew it was clean material — we could sell it at a good price and could subsidize the recycling collection. We could subsidize the program because we were making enough money on the commodities."
It "made sense to have that program because there wasn't tremendous participation" at the time, Carr said. Companies kept the price low to residents because they also knew they could subsidize the cost of the collection, processing and shipping once they sold the recyclable materials, he added.
Now recycling is in a fluctuating state, and companies are struggling to subsidize those costs for various reasons.
Chaos in recycling world
When more residents started participating in recycling, Carr said, single-stream recycling emerged, allowing residents to toss most recyclables into one bin without having to sort. More recycling centers also popped up, providing another outlet for residents.
Technology evolved over time, too. Sorting became easier and more accurate when companies processed the materials, Carr said.
However, contamination issues that had once been "out of sight, out of mind" soon rose to the surface, said Lelande Rehard, district manager with Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District. Residents were throwing non-recyclable materials into recycling bins, which contaminated the recyclable items and made sorting challenging.
Many residents throw items into the recycling bin because they are unaware of what items can be recycled, Rehard said, adding this is known as "wish recycling."
For example, Rehard said, metal cat food cans cannot be recycled because the waxed liner inside the metal can is considered a contaminant. However, that is a common product thrown into the recycling bin because many people do not know, he added.
China officials recently said the country would not accept recyclable items that did not meet its 99.5 percent purity rate.
What vendors will accept has also evolved. While companies counted on selling recyclable items to reimburse the cost of collecting, processing and shipping, the back-end markets are "so tight in terms of quality" and what products they will accept, Carr said. The selling price for the materials can also fluctuate, he added.
"In the recycling market, you may pay $50 a ton to process or you may pay $150 a ton to process, and if you were to get any of the sellable material as a rebate back, that would offset some of our processing," Carr said. "Today, we're not seeing much from a rebate standpoint, if any."
In some areas, glass is not a marketable recyclable item, Carr said. Columbia struggles to sell the glass it collects due to contamination, said Adam White, acting solid waste manager with Columbia.
Jefferson City contracts with Ripple Glass to provide free glass recycling services to residents. Residents can dispose of glass in one of the four purple bins, located at 1228 E. McCarty St. in the Save-A-Lot parking lot, 1700 Southridge Drive at McKay Park, 2284 Hyde Park Road and 2730 W. Main St.
After collecting and processing the glass, Ripple Glass sells it to vendors, including one that converts the recycled glass into fiberglass insulation and another that turns amber glass into bottles, according to the company's website.
Processing recyclable materials can also slow if a non-recyclable item, like a plastic grocery bag, gets caught in the machine, Rehard said.
Lightweighting is also a common issue in the recycling world, Carr said. For example, 40,000 water bottles used to make a ton, but now it takes 90,000 to create a ton.
"People are actually transacting more of these, meaning I am recycling more water bottles, but it just takes more of that material to make that ton," he said. "People are doing a better job of this, but it's just you're having to do so much more to get to that tonnage because of lightweighting."
Searching for improvements
While recycling has evolved over the last three decades, recycling experts are searching for ways to sustain the recycling industry for decades to come.
Decreasing contamination rates is a top priority for improving the recycling industry, Carr said. While not the only solution, he added, it would help create non-contaminated products that companies could sell.
To reduce contamination rates, communities and companies that want to stick with single-stream recycling could limit the recycling stream and accept materials that have value and markets, such as cardboard, metal and plastic, Carr said.
While providing multiple bins for recycling may decrease contamination rates, Carr said, it would be difficult to go back to the old system.
"You had a pretty good program to start with, but we would never want to go back to that system today because if you have 10,000 residents and 60 percent of them participate, you would have to flood that market with so many dump trucks and drivers to pick up that material and the price would be astronomical — that many trucks, that many drivers to pick up that material. Nobody would be willing, able to pay the price for it. It's more cost-prohibitive to go that route than it is to do the single-stream."
Education is also key to improving the recycling industry, experts said. Republic Services recently debuted its new recycling motto: "Empty. Clean. Dry." It hopes residents will empty, clean and dry their recyclable materials before placing them in the bin.
"If you look at plastic containers like orange juice containers or a water bottle, they need to be dry, but if you have a little bit of water left at the bottom, there's potential for contamination because it could get cardboard wet — and when cardboard gets wet, it's not something people want," Carr said.
Jefferson City sent out fliers telling residents to empty, clean and dry their recyclables, as well as "when in doubt, throw it out," said Sheri Johnston, Jefferson City neighborhood services specialist.
Part of that education is also reprogramming residents' outlook on single-use products and to "shift away from such a throw-away society," Johnston said.
She and Rehard said residents should look for more environmentally friendly options instead of single-use plastics like plastic straws and bags, which have garnered national attention as some communities and business have even banned them.
Companies may also look at increasing the cost of recycling for residents.
The national average gap, which is the difference between the cost of recycling and the revenue received from handling the recycling, for Republic Services curbside recycling services is about $5.50 per home per month, Carr told the Jefferson City Council in April. The pickup and processing cost has increased, while the revenue for the commodities has decreased, he added.
At that time, Republic Services representatives suggested several solutions to improve their economic position, including a residence fee increase and amendments to the city's 10-year solid waste management contract with Republic Services.
"We still want to recycle, and we still invest in recycling. But we just need to be compensated as a company to make the collection piece work because right now, the collection piece is what we were subsidizing, but it doesn't work," Carr told the News Tribune last month.
Looking down the recycling line, Johnston and Rehard said they hope to see more domestic markets, as well as other innovative ways to recycle. Some state governments and local entities provide incentives for companies to create innovative manufacturing uses for recyclables, Johnston added.
The nation could also move toward more product stewardship education and laws, Rehard said. The Missouri Product Stewardship Council formed last fall, and its goal is to promote products and laws that "help create an even playing field for the industry to pay into the proper disposal of their stuff."
For example, Rehard said, some states passed legislation requiring pharmaceutical manufacturers that do business in that state to ensure there is a convenience standard for people to dispose of medicines — providing several drop-off locations or mail-back envelopes.
"Trying to build momentum for something like that is something I would love to see in the next 10-20 years," Rehard said. "It's not so much that it's pushing it off onto the private industry, but it's just the most efficient way to do it and to fund it. It also creates an incentive for the manufacturer to think about the end of life of their product.