Maintain Recycling Lies or Face Reality

Recycling was premised that there is not enough room in landfills and that a lot of plastics can and should be recycled.

All the garbage produced in the U.S. for the next 1000 years could fit into a landfill 100 yards deep and 35 miles across on each side. There is enough room in landfills to hold the world’s garbage.

In 2010, only one sixth of the plastics that was collected was actually recycled. Most ended up in landfills. Most plastic is not suitable for recycling.

China was the main destination for recycled material for many years, but China has chosen to stop accepting recycled material. This has dropped the price paid for collected recycle material. The economics for recycling were already marginal or had a loss. China dropping from the market means that value per ton of collected recycle material has cratered.

Many cities in the US and elsewhere are either incinerating recycled material, placing it in landfills or they are stopping the recycling programs entirely.

Richard Coupland III, vice president of municipal sales, Republic Services (recycling and garbage company) has written about recycling.

Richard says the recycling model in the United States is fundamentally broken, and while many factors contribute to this issue, the net effects are that the economics of the business are in the trash. 

In the late 1980s, the price paid per household was artificially low. Why? Local cities and towns wanted residents to adopt the new service. The national average price per home was around $2.00 per month for weekly collection. The actual cost to run the collection operation was around $5.00 per month.

Processing costs were relatively low (around $60/ton). That’s because the material collected was limited to the basics (think newspaper, metal, aluminum, plastics, and glass), with little contamination. The result? The value of the commodity sales (about $200 per ton) easily covered the operational costs of recycling, even after disposing of contamination and residual in the stream.

Today, the average price per home for collection has not grown much and sits around $3.00 per month. The cost of simply getting a collection truck to an average household today is up to about $7.00.

The costs to operate processing centers have almost doubled to more than $100/ton. This is due to the need for more sophisticated sorting equipment and the growing problem of adding labor to sort through increased contamination in the material stream. Last but not least, the value from the commodities at market has dropped to an average value of $100/ton. This large drop in value is attributed to market disruptions from China’s exit from the recycling market.

SOURCES – International City/County Management Association, Foundation for Economic Education, Popular Mechanics

21 thoughts on “Maintain Recycling Lies or Face Reality”

  1. “better standards and values” that include wanting people you disagree with dead?

    I’ll stick with more traditional mores.

  2. The heartless, selfish, and cruel worldview to which you subscribe is very successful, but still not all subscribe to it. I get it, your well being is all that matters and everyone else be damned, but some of us on the coast are members of a civilized society and have better standards and values.

  3. And the younger generation gets to squander their time and resources charging windmills perpetually wondering why their standard of living can’t match their parents. If you want to compost, have fun with it, YOLO.

    Mom and dad paid their way through college, why can’t I? If only I could get some more government loan money, i’m sure that I can take an elective that will explain how all this happened.

    Oh and composting is hardly “new tech”. It is only “new” in the retro-lets-pretend-to-be-one-with-the-earth-while-living-in-NYC sense of “new”.

  4. With cheap energy, coupled with capable and inexpensive automata, I would expect somewhere in the the mid to late part of this century there will actually be firms bidding on mineral rights to old landfills (and even civic garbage collection).

    Everything can be reprocessed, but making it affordable is the trick, and that time is not quite yet.

  5. Imagine if we could recycle *everything* in the local garbage tip, including household waste, old paint tins, mouldy mattresses, and even sheets of asbestos! Imagine it is not just burned for energy, but vaporised in a low oxygen chamber that aims to recycle all this stuff like an atomic recycler. Lighter gases shoot off the top and go to the chemical industry to make glues, paints, plastics and oils. The heavier stuff slurps out the bottom like lava and can make bricks, pavers, roof tiles or even get spun up into fibreglass. It’s called the Plasma Arc burner, and it converts the garbage tip and household waste into material for building the next house! When they get just a bit cheaper, it could be the end of landfill.

  6. What’s the alternative if we don’t reuse material? The continued mining and use of finite resources? Dealing with more environmental damage as we collect that raw material? More wasted energy to process all that raw material, along with its additional pollution byproducts? Sounds like a win-win. S/

  7. A couple of points

    1. Why did it work in the 1980s and not now? Because in the 1980s separating out recyclables was only done by weirdo hippies who were prepared to put the effort in to produce clean separation of different materials. And the total supply was small. Now the sort-police are forcing everyone to do it, so most just approximate and you end up with all sorts of contamination and have huge amounts for sale.

    Surprisingly (to some) if you have a small amount of material that is prepared by enthusiasts it can sell at a much better profit than a large amount of material done slap-dash by unenthusiastic draftees.

    2.. The fundamentals of this article don’t fit right with me. If the total landfill requirements are so small, then why can’t anyone supply the service of taking waste for a low fee? If all a nation needs to do is allocate the size of one farm to landfill, then why is every nation spending a fortune trying less cheap methods of disposal? If all CHina needed to do was fill some desert valley with “temporarily stored” material and take a fee for pretending it was going to recycle, then why did they ban the entire industry?
    I think a big part of the story is going untold here.

  8. Did you see the bit about how it costs $100/tonne to separate out the different waste streams?

    And even that leaves you with a big stream of “mixed” where you have something made of metal, glass and plastic. Where does that go? Or plastic packaging covered with (decaying) food scraps.

  9. It seems inevitable that we need to move to single stream all the things to a plasma torch and post process the plasma products. Even in Tokyo, where you have near religious recycling material separation (16 different categories?!? and the old ladies watching you put out your trash like a hawk to make sure you put out the right categories uncontaminated, like washing out plastic bottles and stripping the labels!), the city actually has given up and is re-merging the separated recyclables and waste and are simply burning it it, or pushing it into artificial island landfills.

  10. and some wonder why anyone would be against new tech that would allow the older generations to over extend their stay. Just to save a buck, they’re always the first to stick others with the bill for the consequences of their depraved worship of money and the mindless pursuit of its interest.

  11. Landfills should be segregated:
    plastics only landfills,
    metals only landfills
    paper only landfills, etc

    so that when the texhnology and need
    do arise for mining them, it is much easier and less costly and we know what exactly what equipment and associated cost is needed at each site.

  12. Not much market for it now, apparently. Could be perceived cost was too high compared to regular aggregate…

  13. they were mixing ground glass into the asphalt when I was in cub scouts in the 80s and got a tour at the facility

  14. Local recycler (Waste Management, Inc) has stopped accepting glass. Turns out that broken bottles tend to jam the sorting machinery, and the cost of keeping things going was significantly more than they were getting for the glass cullet.

    So – metals, paper and plastic only, please. Oh, and no putting things in plastic bags – they jam the sorting machinery also…

  15. The profit dropped because of China’s exit?

    Why can’t municipalities just stick to metal (steel/iron, aluminum, copper) glass and paper recycling? Aren’t the first two highly profitable, and the latter easy enough? Iron recycling has gone on since the Middle Ages, and glass is glass. It’s plastics which are tough to recycle and toxic.

  16. Awesome! Now do composting.

    As for me and my fast approaching curmudgeon status when I eat some food at my local Whole Foods and am faced with the inevitable choice to trash, recycle or compost my leftover garbage (paper, plastic, foodstuffs) I always determine the correct receptacle for my refuse.

    And then I right shift one and put the trash where it doesn’t go.

    Curmudgeon’s gotta curmudgeon.

  17. Just burn everything without sorting it and sparge the exhaust into a landlocked lagoon of water to scrub the nasties out of the stream. Then treat the waste water with whatever chelating agents, flocculants, acid/base additions and release it back to the environment.

  18. There may come a time when stripmining landfills will be profitable for a variety of materials… gold, silver, copper, aluminum, iron, breaking plastics of all sorts into their chemical precursors or simply burning them for energy.

    But we’re not there yet. And if the economics don’t work there’s not much point beyond a ‘feel good’ approach to handling our trash.

    So… don’t be a litterbug, put your trash where it belongs! (And sell those old electronics if you can. Me, I’d like to find a Kindle Fire HDX 10″ in good shape, lol…)

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