Purity Drives Demand in Fickle Recyclables Market

 The current market for paper and glass is slow. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

The current market for paper and glass is slow. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

By JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff

When most people toss something into their recycling bin, chances are, they don't consider the murky and complex market forces at work that dictate where that item will go and what it's worth after it's picked up at the curb.

Those market forces shifted seismically earlier this year, when China enacted its National Sword policy, which sets a tougher standard for contamination levels in the recyclables it imports. This new policy, under which China now rejects recycling bales with more than 0.5 percent impurities, was implemented Jan. 1. This, plus a ban on imports of recycled PET, PE, PVC and PS plastics, in effect, eliminated the single-largest market for U.S. recyclables.

While the West Coast has been acutely impacted by China's new policy, Rhode Island's centralized recycling program, which is run by the Johnston-based Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), has been spared many of the negative effects, according to Katherine Hypolite, communications coordinator at RIRRC.

"You hear a lot of doom and gloom in the West, but in Rhode Island, we’ve been weathering the storm nicely. We really push quality. Quality is key. That’s a way to stay competitive in the marketplace," Hypolite said.

It also helps that the buyers of Rhode Island's recycled plastics — a market hard hit by China's new policy — are based in the United States and Canada.

But paper is a different story.

Pushing paper
"Paper, mixed paper and newsprint — those are the commodities that are struggling mightily to find homes," said Marcel Lussier, RIRRC's Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) coordinator. "The Chinese government is the one pressuring the quality standards. The mills in China are in need of raw materials, but the government rules are preventing them from acquiring it."

China had been taking RIRRC's mixed paper, while newsprint was going to mills in China, Korea, and New Jersey.

And now, with the Chinese market out of play, there simply aren’t enough paper mills in the United States to process the glut of mixed paper coming out of recycling facilities.

A recent article in the Worcester Telegram profiled a recycling facility that is stockpiling paper that now has no market value. Massachusetts bans recyclable materials from being landfilled without a waiver from the state.

"We stockpiled in the past, in 2008, and filled up our existing places to store it, but fortunately the market turned," Lussier said. "We don’t have the luxury to do that this time around."

He noted that RIRRC is doing everything it can to avoid landfilling collected paper. RIRRC would require a dispensation from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to landfill any mandatory recyclables.

With no market for its mixed paper, RIRRC is now paying $23 a ton to International Forest Products.

But, even though there is currently no demand for mixed recycled paper, that may change, and, Jared Rhodes, RIRRC's director of policy and programs, wants Rhode Island to be positioned for that eventuality.

"We still want people to keep recycling their paper. We don’t know where we’ll be in two months.  Things are in flux, but we want people to stay the course," Rhodes said.

Glass half empty?
The market for recycled glass may also be bottoming out, but not as a result of Chinese policy. RIRRC currently has an agreement with Strategic Materials, which sends Rhode Island’s recycled glass to a bottling company in Milford, Mass. However, that bottling company is going out of business, leaving the future of recycled glass uncertain as Strategic Materials looks for new buyers.

Massachusetts glass-recycling programs also have been impacted by the closure of the Milford plant, and already the state has issued nine glass disposal waivers, allowing some towns to landfill recycled glass.

In the early 2000s, RIRRC used crushed glass as a cover for the Central Landfill. But that changed in 2013.

"We're working hard to find beneficial reuses for that material to be sure that there’s value coming off what our residents recycle." Rhodes said. Again, he urged that residents continue to put glass in their recycling bins.

Staying the course
To RIRRC, weathering these fluctuations in the recycling markets means keeping the public informed and engaged.

RIRRC stresses source reduction and reuse first. And it is pushing education and its Let’s Recycle Right! campaign to reduce contamination of recycled materials. Things such as greasy pizza boxes or dirty diapers in recycling bins contaminate recycling streams. The MRF is also slowing the line and investing in technology to help better sort recyclables.

High contamination can cause entire loads of recycling to be rejected, and lesser contamination can impact the purity of recycling bales, making them undesirable to buyers. Right now, purity is key when it comes to securing markets for recycled goods.