Broken Recycling Markets – Part II Commodity Prices

Industrial recyclers of household products such as paper, plastics, metal and glass are having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.

Typically they get paid by cities to haul and process recyclable waste. But they also earn money from selling valuable commodities they extract from this household waste to industrial users. These commodity markets are in a slump.

A China policy change announced in 2017 – called the “National Sword” – banned a number of types of recyclables from importation. Mixed, and otherwise difficult-to-recycle paper, plastics and metals which US recyclers previously shipped across the Pacific Ocean nearly ceased, by 2019 dropping to about 1% of their previous volume. Without an easy market to sell to, parts of the US commodity markets have been in price free-fall, a period of re-adjustment, or just broken.

The effect of this slump for secondary commodity market is both financial and environmental. 

Although much of the reporting on the China ban has focused on plastics, the biggest effect financially for the nation’s second largest recycler Republic Services has been on paper products, according to Peter Keller, Vice President of Recycling Markets for Republic.

Paper makes up 75% by volume of what Republic receives from household bins and traditionally sells to wholesalers.  Partly because of China’s changes and other factors, this market has tanked in the past two years.

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Recycled cardboard used to sell for $200 per ton but now goes for $30 per ton. In addition, households now recycle small cardboard boxes from Amazon, which many recyclers are ill equipped to process, compared to the flow of larger cardboard from retail stores just ten years ago. They recover less, and get paid less, for cardboard than in the past.

“Mixed paper,” a catch-all product that used to sell for $110 per ton in 2017 now costs negative $5 per ton. In other words, a recycler like Republic has to pay a wholesaler to take the tons off mixed paper they process off their hands. What used to be a source of profit is now a source of loss.

Interestingly, a third paper product used to be newsprint. With the national decline of the newspaper business, demand for newsprint has dried up. Your soon-to-be recycled newspaper – perhaps the paper you’re reading from now – now goes into the “mixed paper” stream, with limited-to-negative monetary value today.

I puzzled for a while over how to make a grim metaphor combining the challenges facing the newspaper industry, something about training your new puppy as the best secondary use of my newspaper columns, and overlaying that with the declining value of newsprint as a commodity. I couldn’t manage to make it funny though, so let’s move on.

Secondary metal continues to be a solid B+ student of an otherwise failing recycling class. Bundles of clean soup cans that contain steel command secondary prices like $120 per ton, down from $150 per ton a few years ago. Bundles of clean soda cans that contain aluminum command secondary prices like $1,050 per ton, down from $1,400 per ton in 2017. At these still-relatively high prices, even though soup and beverage cans do not make up the majority of your recycling bin, they can be a significant driver of the overall profitability of a recycling program.

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Finally, there’s glass. For a long time now, glass has been the class trouble-maker of the four materials in a recycling bin. While glass is somewhat infinitely recyclable, producing new glass from scratch (well, sand) is generally cheaper than using recycled glass materials. 

From a commodity-markets perspective, it is puzzling then that the City of Houston reintroduced curbside glass recycling after a three-year hiatus, to some fanfare, in the beginning of 2019.

Glass that comes through a traditional curbside bin has a negative value of $10 per ton, according to Keller. 

Secondary glass is only financially viable as a recycled commodity when sorted carefully by color and somehow cheaply transported to a nearby glass manufacturer, if one exists. According to Keller, if the glass could be cleaned, color-sorted, and delivered to a manufacturer, it could fetch as much as $100/ton.  But getting to that result costs too much money. 

When glass comes in mixed from a household bin, by contrast, it’s not saleable for a profit, it costs a lot to move because of its weight, and it often contaminates other recycled materials. Think paper products with tiny glass shards. Now how much would you pay? So it’s a loss maker.

Sarah Mason, the Division Manager for Recycling at Houston’s Solid Waste Management Department, defended Houston’s decision to reintroduce glass to me, saying the City’s new recycling partner has custom-built its facility to handle glass more efficiently, hopefully reducing the contamination problem.

And then there’s plastics, which have garnered 95% of the headlines but which constitute about 7% of Republic’s revenue stream. 

Even after the China policy change, three types of plastic still have a viable wholesale commodity market, and these markets track the plastic number you’ll find marked on your household plastics. In brief, numbers 1, 2, and 5 still command decent prices as long as they can be separated and processed cleanly.  Plastic #1 – your basic single-use water bottle, can be sold for $250 per ton now, down from about $325 a few years ago. Plastic #5 – consisting of heavier plastics – has stayed steady at $150 per ton, while plastic #2 made up of milk jugs and detergent bottles is actually up slightly in some markets.

Other plastic numbers are virtually un-saleable at any price as a secondary commodity following China’s policy change, and will go to a landfill.

All of these prices should be understood as varying geographically as well as varying by purity. A recycling processor that can produce a homogenous ton of product will command high prices, while a mixed or contaminated product will sell for less, if it will sell at all.

Everyone I’ve spoken to in recent weeks expresses the hope that as technology and markets change, some of the broken parts of the recycling market can improve and heal. New and better sorting technology at the recycling processing plant can turn previous trash into viable secondary commodities, although it may take a combination of capital investments, time, and improved engineering to get there.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

Please see related posts

Recycling Commodity Market Slump Part I – The China Ban

Recycling Commodity Market Slump Part III – The Price of Commodities (upcoming)

Recycling Commodity Market Part IV – What is a Household to do? (upcoming)

Organic Recycling in my city – My new obsession

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Broken Recycling Markets – Part I

bottles

For the past year my kids cluck disapprovingly whenever they see me drinking through a plastic straw and ask, “why do you hate turtles so much?” The connection, for those of you who don’t speak teen girl, is they are signaling to me their concern for unnecessary plastic waste, especially as it shows up dumped in our waterways and oceans, presumably hurting Tommy the Turtle (a fictional character I made up just now.)

Since plastic straws represent just 0.03% of American plastic waste that ends up in the ocean, according to a brief by Rachel Meidl of Rice University’s Baker institute for Public Policy, my kids’ concern is focused on the wrong thing. Because, you know, kids. 

On the other hand, there is a global financial and environment crisis going on in recyclables. In this column and a few to follow, I will describe what – beyond the plastic straw and Tommy the Turtle – we should know about that global crisis and its linkages to the complex financial markets of recycling. 

We tend to think of recycling as interesting to households who want to reduce carbon emissions and protest over-logging of the rainforest.

But another important way – maybe the more sophisticated way – of understanding recycling is to see it fundamentally as a commodities market. Professionals in the recycling industry operate their businesses in a sophisticated financial market for generating four physical commodities, which happen to be second-hand paper, metal, plastic and glass.

The old Chicago Mercantile Exchange

To the extent we think about commodities markets, we might conjure an image of aggressive guys in trading pits in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange shouting and signaling to each other as pork belly futures crash or soybeans soar, or maybe as quantitative traders at their computers bid up the price of West Texas Intermediate Crude following a drone attack on Saudi refineries. 

I’m less interested in a cartoon Tommy the Turtle than I am in the financial linkages between sophisticated commodities markets and the big municipal bin I set out on my curb once a week. 

The metal straw probably isn’t saving the planet. sksksksksksksksk

In speaking with experts in the past few weeks, I wanted to learn about how at the global and national level these commodity markets have evolved in recent years, and also at my household level what I’ve been missing when it comes to my bin. And also about the municipal contracts and programs that link my curbside bin to government revenue and then further link to global markets. In this column and a few to come, I’ll pass on what I’ve learned.

But first, the global market for recyclable commodities got a massive shock at the end of 2017, with the situation still evolving in September 2019.

China announced a new program called “National Sword” in 2017 in which it would not import 24 types of waste, including many mixed paper and plastic products, starting in March 2018. A further list of 16 more items, including many metals, will be banned from import by the end of 2019. This ban meant that a huge proportion of the recyclable commodity producers in the US and Europe suddenly lost their primary buyer. 

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Mountains of Plastic

The China bans allow for the importation of “clean” plastics and metals, but ceased the importation of what people in the industry call contaminated commodities, or mixed materials. 

Even after the 2017 policy change, China remained open to highly pure or homogenous paper, plastics and metals, but not the mixed, dirty and hard to handle stuff it had previously bought from the United States and Europe.

Underlying this China ban is a first key lesson of the economics of the recycling industry: Demand, and prices, are highly driven by the purity of the commodity. 

Purity in this market means the homogenous consistency of one type of resource. If a recycler can cleanly separate any second-hand material – whether it be plastic, metal, paper, or even glass – industrial buyers will pay a premium for that commodity’s purity. 

Mixed materials by contrast, whether blended with other materials types or contaminated by non-recyclables or worse, go for the lowest prices, if they will be bought at all. By 2019 the tons of scrap plastic imported to China fell to less than 1% of 2017 levels. 

Imports of plastic waste from the US and Europe to Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam briefly quadrupled in 2018, as plastic exporters scrambled to find alternatives to the China market. But those alternative Southeast Asian markets have proven unable to handle the volumes coming from the US and Europe. Recyclers in the US are now awash in secondary dirty plastic, with no market-based outlet for their commodity. Much of that is headed for landfills.

The price of products like cardboard and what the industry calls “mixed paper” has also plummeted. 

Recycling experts draw a straight line between the 2017 China ban and a fundamentally altered US municipal recycling market, compared to just two or three years ago. While not the only cause, the ban provided a major shock to the system. 

Some headline effects: 

US cities that used to earn a profit on their recycling programs a few years ago now lose money every month. Some cities have either cut back part of their programs already, or are considering cutting back on their programs. All cities will be forced to reckon with a greatly altered financial consequence of having a recycling program, since what used to help the bottom line now loses money.

Far more waste in the US is headed for landfills or the incinerator compared to just two years ago. 

In a subsequent column I’ll describe the specific financial effects on Texas cities like Houston and San Antonio and other cities in Texas.

Later, I’ll also describe all the things I’ve been doing wrong with my own recycling bin, and maybe you have been as well. 

When we get it wrong, we contaminate or reduce the value of the natural stream of secondary commodities our households produce. Millions are at stake for our city’s budgets, and billions for the country.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

Please see related posts

Recycling Part II – Commodity Market Price Drops (forthcoming)

Recycling Part III – Municipal Contract (forthcoming)

Recycling Part IV – Household Mistakes (forthcoming)

Tommy_the_turtle

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