COVID-19 ISO Insights

The Recycling Industry May be at a Crossroads

May 4, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU

The recycling landscape shifted significantly, per Wired, in January 2018 when China stopped accepting two dozen types of recycling materials (including paper and plastic). The only exceptions would be for products that were unmixed and met stringent contamination standards—a threshold that has reportedly been too difficult to meet for U.S. companies.

This means that the United States, which, per YaleEnvironment360 had previously exported 70% of its recycled plastics to Chinese processors, is being confronted with a deluge of recyclable materials and has limited capacity and infrastructure to handle it appropriately. A lead author of a study on the impacts that could result from China’s import ban told YaleEnvironment360 that this current reality makes landfills or incineration cost-effective options to handle the plastic waste.

Current Recycling Environment May be a Cause for Concern

Wired recently profiled an incineration company just outside Philadelphia that has been receiving about 200 tons of recyclable materials on a daily basis since China’s ban went into place. Experts are reportedly concerned that the burning of these materials could be exacerbating health issues in a local neighborhood that are potentially borne out of air pollution (see our post here that chronicles the litany of health concerns associated with air pollution) coming from this plant. Per Wired, residents of Chester City are being inflicted with the following:

  • Nearly four in ten children have asthma.
  • The rate of ovarian cancer is roughly 64% higher than the rest of Pennsylvania.
  • Lung cancer rates are approximately 24% higher than the rest of Pennsylvania.

Axios also reported earlier in 2020 that “changing consumer behaviors have made the trash-sorting process more complex and expensive” and has compelled some U.S. cities to question the practicality of maintaining a recycling program. According to Wired, the cost of recycling in Philadelphia has increased to $78 a ton, a total that has become a “‘major impact on the city’s budget’”, according to a spokesperson for the city of Philadelphia. This, per Wired, is compelling the city to send half of these materials to the aforementioned incineration company.

Some other developments chronicled by Axios include:

  • A brief profile of a center in Prince William County, Virginia. Axios found that, in part, the process is still very dependent on human labor, relying on “sorters” to manually pull out non-recyclable waste from the conveyor belts. Additionally, Axios notes that contamination is a major issue as well, with people throwing out the likes of shoes, diapers, cinder blocks, and other nonconforming items into recycling bins.
  • Nearly 60 cities have canceled their recycling programs, and others are now refusing to collect certain items.
  • Cities are reportedly needing to renegotiate contracts with recycling providers—usually ones that have been in place for 30 years—in order to implement a more cost-efficient and feasible business model.

In addition to these issues, the complicated nature of sorting these materials could be resulting in a surge in fires at these plants. In 2019, we posted about a growing e-waste issue that is corresponding with an increase in technological devices that consumers are struggling to dispose of properly. E-waste, according to the Platform Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), is typically defined as anything that can be plugged in and has seen the end of its use.

The Verge has reported that this disposal of e-waste is leading to lithium-ion batteries, which power many pieces of electronics, winding up in recycling plants and potentially triggering costly fires. According to the article, annual fires at waste facilities in Canada and the U.S. have increased 26% from 2016-2019 (272 to 343).

Of note, a Vice President for a company that develops fire prevention systems for industrial sites told The Verge that these fires are typically underreported, and he “estimates that there actually around 1,800 fires at waste facilities in 2019.”

What Impacts on Recycling and Waste Might COVID-19 Produce?

In the short-term, reports have emerged pertaining to how COVID-19 is further disrupting the recycling ecosystem that was already scrambling to maintain efficiency.

  • The Wall Street Journal has reported that various recycling programs are being suspended, in part, due to concerns with how COVID-19 may remain on materials for a period of time. Cited in the WSJ article is a finding by the New England Journal of Medicine that coronavirus can be present on plastic and steel for up to 72 hours.
  • The WSJ and The Verge have also reported on the uncertainty regarding the handling of the spike in COVID-19 medical waste that is being sent to recycling and waste facilities. According to The Verge, the CDC states that medical waste from COVID-19 can be treated the same way as regular medical waste. The Verge also notes that “[r]egulations on how to treat that waste vary by location and can be governed by state health and environmental departments, as well as by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Transportation.”
  • This unease is compounded by the fact that a recycling head at “one of America’s largest waste haulers”, per the WSJ, conceded that he was struggling to secure masks, which federal guidelines reportedly dictate that these workers need. Additionally, the National Waste & Recycling Association, a trade body, reportedly expressed that “some of its members are running out of protective gloves and hand sanitizer.”
  • The WSJ also notes that the halt in operations from restaurants and other businesses across the U.S. is reducing the number of materials that would normally be siphoned through the system, thus hammering away at income for these enterprises, ranging from facilities to waste haulers, that do remain open.

From a long-term perspective, COVID-19 could potentially accelerate the mountain of recyclable materials that the U.S. is struggling to handle

Additionally, cities across the country, including San Francisco, which was reportedly a pioneer in banning single-use plastic bags, are now temporarily banning reusable shopping bags, per The Hill, in order to “prevent outside germs from entering grocery stores.” Prior to the outbreak, YaleEnvironment360 had noted that China’s ban would lead to as many as 111 million tons of plastic needing to find a new processing facility. With the ban on reusable bags in place for the foreseeable future, this estimate could surge even higher.

Another potential industry impact is that some of these companies may turn to technology in these times. Back in February, a professor at Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies told Axios that, given the surplus of materials to handle, coupled with the increasing costs involved, “[t]here’s a huge opportunity for innovation within recycling.”

This observation appears to be prescient. Given the social distancing requirements, some companies are turning to technology in order to keep operating. For example, according to Cheddar, AMP Robotics is deploying robots to these facilities that “use artificial intelligence to determine which products can be recycled and which should be headed to a landfill.”

Perhaps this trial run of robotics in these facilities, borne out of necessity, could lead to increased efficiency for recycling facilities in the future.