The COVID-19 pandemic has had a bad effect on recycling. And the recycling industry was already reeling. Yet demand for recycled metal, paper, glass, and even plastic remains high.
The US Department of Homeland Security quickly recognized waste collection as an essential service that had to continue despite the pandemic. It took a bit longer for it to recognize recycling as essential. But too many essential manufacturers need recycled materials to allow it to collapse.
That official recognition may be the best short-term news for recycling. The general public seems to have lost interest in environmental issues, however.
Coronavirus will eventually fade from the news cycle. In the longer term, we have to hope that the public will regain its interest in green living. And we’ll have to do a better job of communicating how and why to recycle.
Some of the trouble in the recycling industry
After years of warnings about high contamination rates, China finally slammed the door on being the world’s dumping ground for trash. Effective January 2018, it stopped importing recyclables unless they met a nearly unreachably low contamination rate.
Prices recycling centers could get for their output tanked. But when China first started importing recyclables, it paid so much that it priced American recyclers out of the market. Ultimately, the answer for low commodity prices for recyclables is to have plenty of American companies who want to buy them. It will take years for that market to build up.
For another problem, plastic has long presented the most serious recycling headaches. Marketers of bottled water have used thinner and thinner bottles. Recycling centers sell sorted plastic by weight.
Thinner bottles mean the same number of bottles weigh less and therefore bring less money for the same processing costs. The lower quality of output means recycling centers take another economic hit.
How the pandemic worsened problems in the recycling industry
When oil is cheap, making virgin plastic costs less than making recycled plastic. And of course, the pandemic has sent oil prices lower than they have been in years.
Before the pandemic, environmental considerations led some municipalities to ban plastic shopping bags and other single-use plastics.
Now, craven fear has led some stores not to allow customers to bring reusable bags inside. Since transmission of COVID-19 by touching surfaces is unlikely, there is no discernable public health benefit to banning their use. It just adds to the volume of plastic trash that’s hard to recycle.
And, of course, hand sanitizer sales have quadrupled. Therefore, so have the number of plastic bottles to discard. Online shopping has likewise increased dramatically, along with not only the number of cartons for people to discard but also the amount of plastic securing the contents. So it’s not economically feasible to recycle all these new additions to the waste stream.
Recycling programs have long had trouble educating the public on what can and can’t be put out at the curb. Aspirational recycling and throwing everything in the trash equally hamper the recycling industry. And with the coronavirus, consumers are less willing to participate in recycling and do it correctly.
And on top of that, recycling centers, like most other manufacturing businesses, must operate at reduced capacity to protect workers from the pandemic. Some recycling programs have relied on prisoners on work release to staff their operations. But COVID-19 has temporarily ended work release programs.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that some municipalities have simply stopped collecting recyclables entirely? If recycling centers can’t at least break even, it’s cheaper to put everything in our already bulging landfills. If they can’t maintain staffing levels, they can’t receive what’s collected.
COVID-19, the pubic, and environmental issues
COVID-19 has had a dramatic effect on American attention to environmental issues. For one thing, we’re worried about getting sick or making someone else sick. Many of us are out of work or working reduced hours, so economic issues join our health as a concern.
And at the same time, shootings of black men by police and a nasty election cycle have joined the pandemic to muscle nearly everything else off the news.
So here’s some indication of how environmental issues have suffered.
- Before the pandemic hit, 41% of us wanted other people to know that we bought green products. Late in May 2020, at its height, only 33% did.
- Before the pandemic, 25% of Americans could name a brand we had bought—or not bought—because of the manufacturer’s environmental reputation. In May, only 19% could.
- Before, 27% thought we could have an effect on plastic waste. In May, only 19% did.
- Before, 63% of us had heard about bans on single-use plastic products. In May, only 54% remember hearing about it.
Likewise, Americans have become less concerned about climate change and less confident of being able to do anything about it. The percentage of Americans who do not feel like they can help affect any environmental issue rose from 10% to 13%.
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can help explain this drop in attention and confidence. The needs in order of importance are
- physiological needs (food, shelter, etc.)
- safety needs
- love and belonging
Maslow taught that people will not pay much attention to the higher needs until the lower ones are satisfied. As long as we’re worried about our health and our ability to pay bills, we won’t pay much attention to what seem like less basic issues.
COVID-19, the pubic, and recycling
And, of course, pandemic-related regulations have mandated mountains of trash. Everyone wears masks, mostly, it seems, disposable masks. With drinking fountains turned off, people buy more bottled water. When restaurants could only provide takeout, food came packed in Styrofoam, along with plastic table service and piles of paper napkins.
When it comes to recycling, only a minority (39%) is aware that we can’t export recyclables to China or elsewhere any more. Only about the same size minority recognizes that PET plastic (no. 1 in the recycling triangle) is the easiest to recycle. Many still do more takeout business than dine-in business. And where you can dine in, some restaurants offer more disposables than before.
The vast majority of us haven’t changed our recycling habits. We still separate recyclables from trash, drag it to the curb, and expect good things to happen to it. Unfortunately, where curbside recycling has been discontinued or curtailed, most people don’t look for alternatives.
For example, my city stopped accepting glass in curbside recycling. It established drop-off centers for it. On the one hand, the glass collected there is cleaner and brings a better price. On the other hand, many people can’t be bothered to take glass there, even if a center is on their way to some other destination. More glass, therefore, goes to the landfill. That makes less available for the manufacture of new glass.
The pandemic and demand for recycled materials
I have said that not enough American businesses use recycled material to absorb everything China used to import.
That said, businesses that bought recyclables before the crackdown sometimes complained they couldn’t find enough. The pandemic has both boosted demand and suppressed supply.
For example, the surge in online shopping increases the demand for cardboard boxes. Mixed paper and old cardboard make up the majority of materials box manufacturers use.
Much of that comes from commercial recycling, that is, what businesses contribute to the recycling stream. But the closing of so many businesses cut off that part of the supply. Mixed paper and cardboard make up about half of the residential recycling stream, and paper mills rely on it now more than ever.
For an industry that relies so heavily on recycled content, using virgin materials for making boxes would require a major overhaul of supply chains and processes. If papermills can’t get the recycled content they need, it creates a bottleneck that could keep critical materials from reaching the market efficiently.
US beverage cans contain about 73% recycled material. American recycling centers turn out more than 5 million aluminum cans every hour. They are worth about $800 million every year.
Ten states have “bottle bills” that require stores to charge a deposit for cans and redeem them. Those states have provided 40% of the recycled cans industry uses to make new ones. Because of the pandemic, however, they’re not accepting returns.
Demand for cans hasn’t diminished. Therefore manufacturers of cans must use more virgin aluminum to make up for the shortage of recycled aluminum.
I have no precise figures for “tin” cans, but it stands to reason that manufacturers must also deal with similar shortages.
Before the pandemic, many brands made commitments to increase the amount of recycled plastic they used for new bottles and jugs. The pandemic has led to increased demand for virgin resins.
And it’s not only bottles and jars that need recycled plastic. Some companies use bottles to make polyester yarn and fabric. COVID-19-related declines in plastic recycling also hurts these product lines.
Glass bottles and jars likewise have recycled content, currently about 35%. And about 90% of glass containers get filled with food and beverages. But manufacturers rely on the bottle bill states for 60% of their recycled feedstock. With the current crisis in curbside glass recycling, they can’t make up the shortage from residential recycling.
The glass industry has had to reach out to state governments to point out the importance of glass recycling. Maybe if they can make public officials realize the critical importance of glass recycling to the food industry, it will be easier to educate the general public.
The paper, plastic, and metal recycling industries have also started to make their case with more urgency.
COVID-19 pandemic reveals true importance of recycling and the supply chain / Kaitlin Bradshaw, Waste360. April 30, 2020
Engaging Middle America in recycling solutions / Suzanne Shelton, Green Biz. August 26, 2020
Yet another consequence of the pandemic: more plastic waste / Matt Simon, Wired. April 13, 2020
Trash and recycling truck. Some rights reserved by fairfaxcounty
Tipping floor. My picture
Maslow hierarchy. Pixabay
Overflowing trash can. Some rights reserved by m01229
Wastepaper bales. Source unknown.
Plastic bales. bogdanwanko / 123RF Stock Photo