Advanced Disposal is no longer recycling certain items – including glass – in areas of western Cumberland County, as the ripple effect from China’s crackdown on recyclable imports earlier this year continues to grow.
Advanced Disposal will no longer be accepting glass, styrofoam, rubber hoses, foam or plastic food containers, pizza boxes or plastic grocery bags as recyclables, according to a list posted by Southampton Township.
These items must now be placed in the regular garbage – although all of those items, except glass, should have been thrown out previously, said Mark Nighbor, vice president of communications at Advanced Disposal.
The change will affect residents in the area covered by the Southampton Township Trash Authority, which serves not just Southampton Township, but also Cooke, Shippensburg, South Newton, Penn, North Newton and West Pennsboro townships, as well as Newville Borough.
The crackdown on the listed contaminants, and the elimination of glass recycling, follows a rapid slowdown in China’s acceptance of imported scrap, which has reverberated through recycling markets.
But China isn’t strictly to blame, Nighbor said – Chinese enforcement has just exacerbated a longstanding problem with consumers trying to recycle everything, which ultimately ends up being counter-productive.
“Haulers are trying to get people away from that wishful thinking in terms of what is recyclable,” Nighbor said, emphasizing the “if in doubt, throw it out” slogan.
“Ultimately what happens is that folks are compromising the quality of the material that is actually valuable and could’ve been sold as recyclables if it wasn’t contaminated,” Nighbor said.
Advanced Disposal’s contract with the trash authority does not require it to recycle glass or any other material, said Southampton Township Supervisor Scott Mack. The company was doing so by choice, because it could sell the scrap. But that has changed.
“We don’t require Advanced Disposal to do it,” Mack said. “They wanted to do it because they could sell it, but they can’t now.”
The trash authority has been looking for a solution for months, since it got word that the bottom was dropping further out of the recycling market, but was unable to find something market feasible, Mack said.
“Glass is not solvent,” Mack said. “There is nobody to buy it, you can’t get rid of it – most of it goes to the landfill anyway.”
“I don’t want to say glass can’t be recycled, but the market is very slim,” Nighbor said. “There is not enough demand to match the supply. In many instances, we have to pay to dispose of glass.”
None of the municipalities covered by the Southampton authority are required by Pennsylvania law to recycle at all, Mack said, given the communities’ small sizes and low population density. State laws only mandate recycling services for more densely-populated jurisdictions.
Residents could haul their own glass if they are able to find a recycling center that takes it – but the chances of that are slim. The recycler that Advanced Disposal was using is no longer taking glass, Nighbor said, echoing a national trend.
Issues with the glass recycling market are tangentially related to trade with China, Nighbor said, although the issue pre-dates the recent Chinese recycling crackdown.
Earlier this year, China – the world’s primary consumer of recyclables and scrap – clamped down on the level of contaminants in recycling loads that were allowed into the country. This quickly became an issue for trash haulers and scrap dealers who accepted single-stream recycling, in which consumers put all of their recyclables in one container, as opposed to separating paper, plastics and glass by themselves.
The convenience of single-stream recycling has seen recycling rates rapidly increase across the nation in recent years. But it has a downside.
“The positive to single stream is it’s made it easy for everyone and more people recycle,” Nighbor said. “Unfortunately, the counter to that is that the rate of contamination with single stream recycling has been increasingly dramatic.”
Single-stream contamination runs 20 to 40 percent, according to industry statistics. China will now accept no more than a half-percent of contamination.
Further, China began enforcing tariffs on U.S. scrap imports in August, part of the ongoing trade dispute with the Trump administration.
As a result, exports of recyclable paper from the U.S. to China are down 40 percent for the first eight months of 2018, and plastics are down 93 percent, according to industry statistics cited by the Wall Street Journal.
For haulers and dealers, this creates a bear market. Buyers are willing to pay less and less for recyclables, especially contaminated loads, and removing contaminants costs money.
“Because of the need for higher quality, we have to re-run the material over and over to get out the bad stuff,” Nighbor said regarding Advanced Disposal’s sorting operations. “Your cost efficiency, because of contamination, is way down.”
Glass is a frequent contamination issue, especially with broken glass that gets embedded in paper products that would otherwise be financially viable for recycling.
Further, Nighbor said, glass by itself has not been financially sustainable for some time. Up until 2014, glass could be processed and sold at a small profit, or at least at a break-even, Nighbor said. But over the past four to five years, Advanced Disposal has seen the margin on glass go negative.
Haulers continued to accept glass, however, given that they were still making sufficient money off other recyclables in the stream. But this has changed since the China troubles.
“When you had China consuming this much scrap, and money was way up for other commodities, it may have subsidized the issues with glass,” Nighbor said. “But when other commodities started to drop, it exposed glass as something that wasn’t financially viable for the recycling stream.”
“I don’t know that we can blame China for that – the underlying economics had already been there,” Nighbor said.
Advanced Disposal would love to see glass recycling make a resurgence, Nighbor said – but the way to do that is for consumers to be more diligent about what they put in the recycling.
If the country is able to generate less-contaminated loads, more commodities, such as glass, may become market-viable again.
“We need help to educate people on what should and shouldn’t be in recycling,” Nighbor said. “Ultimately, we have to protect the value of the commodity that’s being recycled. That’s what we need the public’s help with.”