Yes! Recycling Is Worth It And Is Here To Stay.
Challenges in the recycling industry have left some wondering – why even do it?
With a recent onslaught of negative stories in the media, we wanted to take a moment to reassure you that no, recycling is not doomed.
As Millennium celebrates our 20-year anniversary this month, let’s review the current challenges and why recycling is still so important.
The most newsworthy challenge being faced is the Chinese import ban. This has led to an abundance of material staying in the U.S. which has drastically increased supply, decreased demand, and lowered commodity value across the globe.
- History Lesson: Although the U.S. has always processed the bulk of our recyclables domestically, China was importing almost 40% of America’s waste as raw material for its booming manufacturing industries. This let Chinese businesses buy a higher quality waste product than what they had available, and countries like the U.S. were able to ship it instead of invest in more recycling technologies at home. Eventually, bad actors took advantage of this partnership and increasingly shipped unacceptably high levels of contamination (basically dirty trash labeled as recycling). With concerns over pollution, public health, and the desire to build up their own domestic recycling, the Chinese government decided to put a stop to this.
- Not a Surprise: For those of us in the industry who have paid attention, the China ban is nothing new. As early as 2013 China was putting restrictions into place. At Millennium, we have learned that to be a stable player in the industry, you must have a comprehensive business plan with strong, domestic partnerships that can withstand a volatile marketplace. Over 90% of the material processed at Millennium is marketed right here in the Midwest, with the remaining amount going to companies across the U.S. and occasionally exported outside the country. Because we have planned for the ups and downs of the industry, recycling remains viable for Millennium in the long-run.
- A Domestic Opportunity: It’s clear the general public does not want our waste to simply be shipped overseas. Instead, we all want to see it processed here at home, creating new jobs and helping our domestic economy grow. With room for market improvement, we’re excited to see our domestic capabilities come alive. Companies and new investors around the country are investing and expanding to ensure recycling succeeds, including Chinese businesses who are no longer able to meet their demand in China. In the long term, this challenge will prove positive for our entire industry and for our country.
Whether people aren’t sure what to recycle, or just don’t care, contamination has been on the rise for years.
- Wishful Recycling: Although enthusiasm for recycling is strong, the stuff people throw in their bins is doing more harm than good. Consumer confusion has led to the recycling bin being used as a second garbage can. Contamination includes things like food waste, liquids, dirty diapers and yard waste that can ruin good material. Items like scrap metal, wood waste and “tanglers” can also damage equipment. Other dangerous items like used needles or sharp knives can put workers at risk. A combination of ‘wishful recycling’ and not enough repercussion from putting the wrong stuff in the bin has taken its toll.
- Single Stream: In the early days of recycling, people had to sort materials into separate bins. Now, single stream allows all recyclables to be placed into one bin – greatly increasing participation and efficiency with some communities reporting a 50% increase in recycling, but also proving to be a challenge on the contamination side. If the process is not setup correctly, contamination can get out of control very quickly. Workers must pull out anything that is not recyclable or recognized by the equipment, and if contaminants aren’t removed, the value of the material is extremely diminished. However, asking residents to sort materials again would lead to fewer people bothering to recycle at all. According to a Harris poll, 66% of people say they wouldn’t recycle if it wasn’t easy. Going back to the old days with multiple bins taking up space and requiring more time to sort would be a big step backwards.
- Getting it Right: Getting the single stream collection and sorting process right is key. At Millennium, about 3.5% of the material we collect goes unrecycled. That’s significantly better than the national average of 25%. However, contamination is still one of the biggest challenges and expenses we face. Now more than ever we need to focus on reducing confusion through better education, increasing enforcement to keep people responsible, and improving the process through technology innovations.
Our culture has normalized taking natural resources, using them, and disposing of them. Although recycling plays a huge role in reducing this waste, it’s trailing behind the manufacturers who are constantly upscaling production and cranking out new packaging and products with little regard of recyclability.
- “Designed-for-the-Dump”: Product packaging with little to no recycling options is causing serious environmental consequences that will last hundreds of years. Plastic is the biggest issue, usually stamped with a chasing arrows symbol, many people assume it can all be recycled. However, that symbol does NOT mean something can be recycled. Many plastic products are made of mixed resins or loaded with chemicals that are not recyclable. And with oil prices being so low, it can be cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin plastic than it is to use recycled plastic— increasing the ratio of non-recyclable plastic in our waste stream exponentially.
- The Need for a Circular Economy: Recycling has always been framed as the consumer’s responsibility, however, we throw out a lot of trash because we are sold and have access to a lot of trash. A big step towards solving our waste crisis would be a “circular economy”, where manufacturers design materials for reuse rather than disposal. If packaging and product designers would consult recycling facilities and include all stakeholders, they could learn if their designs are truly able to be recycled.
- Love for the Landfill: In a state like South Dakota, the availability of cheap and plentiful space makes it easy to continue burying our waste. The average landfill tip fee nationally is $55.22 per ton, whereas the Sioux Falls Regional Sanitary Landfill charges just $36. To encourage haulers to not just dump it all, the City of Sioux Falls requires them to meet annual recycling standards. City ordinance also requires all Sioux Falls businesses and residential units, including apartments, to recycle, but trying to find a recycling receptacle at a gas station, restaurant or retailer is nearly impossible. Recycling takes a community effort to be successful and we will continue working with the City and other community stakeholders to make sure that happens.
Many people believe recycling is free, when in reality it can actually be very expensive. It’s important to remember that recycling is a service and should be seen as one. Burying or burning trash may seem like an easier option in the short term, but the savings that come from recycling are long term.
- Economy: By reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills, recycling saves landfill space which ultimately saves tax dollars. At the Sioux Falls Landfill, it takes each cell an average of eight years to fill up. The cost to build just one cell is estimated at $6 million. By recycling in our community, we are directly supporting local private businesses like waste haulers, material recovery facilities and processors while reducing the amount of public funding needed to continue expanding the landfill. Recycling also generates jobs, as many as thirty times more than landfills and incinerators combined! With positions ranging from material sorting, dispatchers, truck drivers, educators, public relations, maintenance, brokers, sales representatives, process engineers, and chemists, there are MANY different types of jobs being created. As a local employer, Millennium employs over 30 full-time team members in our community and will continue providing opportunities for people from various backgrounds for years to come. In 2017, the economic impact in South Dakota alone from the scrap recycling industry was over $250 million.
- Energy: The most important benefit of recycling is recovering the raw materials we use. It takes a lot of energy and water to extract and refine virgin materials from the earth. When things are dumped in the landfill, the energy used to make them is lost. Although some energy can be recovered from capturing methane gas or waste incineration, using recycled materials to make new products takes significantly less energy than either of these options, even after accounting for recycling collection, processing and transportation. Recycling aluminum uses 95% less energy than using virgin material. One ton of recycled paper uses 64% less energy than from virgin wood pulp. Steel and tin cans save 60-74% of the energy used to produce them from raw materials. Recycled plastic uses only two-thirds of the energy compared to raw materials. And producing glass from silica mining requires 30% more energy than from crushed, recycled glass.
- Environment: From a sustainability point of view, recycling has great value. The simple choice to recycle reduces the amount of waste being sent to landfills and incinerators, allowing us to conserve natural resources and prevent pollution. Critics argue that we aren’t running out of landfill space any time soon and there’s nothing wrong with burying it all, but the problem is people don’t want to live near landfills. Rotting waste produces methane gas and a mixture of chemicals and liquids called leachate. If not properly contained and or treated, this leads to air pollution and can slowly seep into groundwater used for crops and tap water, causing serious health risks. According to the EPA, even modern landfills with new clay and plastic liners will ultimately fail. Incinerators are not a perfect solution either, as they release heavy metals and toxic chemicals into the air. It’s very difficult to justify building a new landfill or incinerator when we could be preventing the need for them by recycling.
What Does The Future Hold?
Most people agree that recycling is still necessary, but critics say that it gives people the sense they are doing all they need to, leading to excessive consumption and creating a bigger problem. Many have made tough decisions on raising prices while others have stopped their programs altogether. At Millennium, we believe we should be focused on both improving recycling and reducing consumption.
Together We Succeed. As we move forward, Millennium’s goal is to keep costs down for our customers and the public, be transparent with market options, and continue driving education through community outreach. We can make radical progress – but we can’t do it alone. For those who still believe, you can choose products you know are recyclable, arm yourself with the facts, and continue to learn and participate. Consumer voice is very powerful and will ultimately determine how important recycling and waste diversion is in our community and in our world.