This gloomy narrative has gained momentum over the past three years as cities struggled to find places to send the stuff that people toss in their blue bins. Some areas reduced or eliminated recycling programs; others passed along higher costs to residents. Then Covid upended the supply chains that turn detergent bottles, junk mail and old beer cans into new products.
All that doomsaying turned out to be misplaced, however. Far from becoming another Covid casualty, the U.S. recycling industry is in fact booming. It’s a story equal parts economics and ingenuity.
Most Americans view recycling in environmental terms. But practitioners know it as something quite different: a commodity business that meets roughly 40% of the world’s raw-material needs. About two-thirds of American steel is made from recycled resources. The Covid-related toilet-paper shortage was exacerbated by a scarcity of the recycled office paper from which those rolls are often manufactured.
Like other commodity businesses, recycling is subject to booms and busts. But up until 2018, the U.S. industry had seen three decades of boom (interrupted briefly by the financial crisis). In the 1990s, Chinese manufacturers powered a decades-long commodities super-cycle that required huge amounts of recycled raw materials. At the same time, thousands of U.S. local governments began offering curbside recycling programs. Supply met voracious demand, and prices climbed, encouraging more local governments to get into the profitable business of recycling.
It was a mostly virtuous cycle that benefited the environment, municipal budgets and American consumers. But it also blinded the industry to how reliant it had become on China. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Chinese paper mills upgraded their technology to recycle the confounding and often food-stained mix of papers typically found in blue bins. American mills didn’t. As a result, they were soon unable to compete on prices and largely left the business to China.
The consequences were dire. In 2017, China announced that it planned to restrict the import of recyclables, including mixed paper. Two years later, recyclers had gone from receiving more than $100 a ton for mixed paper to actually paying for disposal. According to one analyst, in 2018 about 500,000 tons of once-valuable mixed paper were collected for recycling — and then landfilled. Local governments understandably feared that their one-time cash cow was dead.
But the industry didn’t stand pat. Beginning in 2018, more than a dozen paper recyclers announced that they were expanding their facilities to process grades no longer accepted by China (plastics recyclers made similar investments). One company, Green Bay Packaging, just opened a $500 million facility that can manufacture 685,000 tons of paper from recyclables each year. As a result of these and other expansions (including some overseas), demand for recycled paper has actually increased since China closed its doors.
Thanks partly to Covid, other recyclables are surging as well. The e-commerce boom has created historic demand for the return of old cardboard boxes to make new ones. Prices are soaring for recycled plastic. Waste Management Inc., the largest U.S. recycler by revenue, reported that its first quarter average price for recyclables was up 97% over the same period last year.
More good news for the industry is on the horizon. In 2022, California will require that plastic bottles contain recycled content, and other states are likely to follow suit. Increasingly, large consumer brands are making recycled-content promises that will be hard to fulfill without more supply than is currently available. If they manage to follow through, the U.S. recycling industry will not only become bigger and more profitable, but far more resilient.
The good times won’t last forever. “Any time the revenue is based on commodity prices, there will be ups and downs,” says Joe Pickard, the chief economist at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade association. “My main concern is a correction in commodity markets.”
Corrections are, of course, inevitable. But the obituaries are premature: American recycling is alive and kicking.