According to the latest virtual pandemic-related humor, Americans who are staying home because of COVID-19 are buying so many items online that when a household doesn’t receive a package for a couple days, a UPS driver will knock on the door to make sure the occupants are OK.
Those home-delivered items generally come in cardboard boxes, which then usually get placed in bins that are picked up and delivered to area recyclers. As a result, those recyclers now find themselves buried in cardboard.
Kathy Carroll, community relations manager for Boulder-based Western Disposal Services Inc., calls it “the Amazon effect.”
The pandemic has helped trigger a market rebound for the recycling industry, which staggered in 2018, when China stopped buying the world’s refuse. Not only cardboard but also metals and mixed papers are hot commodities now, because homebound folks created a boom in home-improvement projects that increased demand for items such as insulation, carpeting, paint and composite decking material — all of which can be manufactured with recycled materials.
Still, Colorado’s rate of recycling falls far below the national average, and the industry is launching several initiatives — including proposed legislation — to give it a boost.
Several Boulder County recyclers say China’s “National Sword” policy ended up being a good thing.
“Since China put up the green fence, it was hard to move recycling in general, hard to get them processed,” said Bridget Johnson, who founded Green Girl Recycling 23 years ago in Longmont. “When they stopped buying, we still had the amount to process but less places to go with it. But the market responded. We slowly have been reopening mills to process things, which is a healthy, good thing for the United States.
“We bale cardboard and sell it on the open market,” she said. “More mills have opened up to process all that cardboard because there’s a huge need for it.”
Working from home and shunning indoor restaurant settings also resulted in a surge of delivered meals, which come in containers that also may be able to be recycled or composted.
“We’ve never recycled more than we have during COVID,” Johnson said, “one-and-a-half times more from residential customers.”
She estimated that Green Girl saw a 75% decrease in recyclables from businesses during the height of the COVID-related shutdowns, but “it’s basically back to where it was before. People have worked out their flex work schedules. But still, there’s a huge movement of people working from home. Decentralization has happened with offices shutting down, and so many of our business customers in the last six months have moved their negotiated leases downward. But even though offices have less recycling, wherever people live or work, they produce more of it.”
Some of Green Girl’s industrial customers remained consistent, however.
“Celestial Seasonings never slowed down, and Smucker’s produces as much recyclables as it ever did,” Johnson said. “They didn’t get the opportunity to slow down or shift or pivot, because there’s a higher demand for food than ever before.”
Green Girl, which frequently appears on BizWest’s annual Mercury 100 list of fastest-growing companies, partnered with Longmont this year for a two-week paper-shredding and electronics recycling drive. Driven by pandemic concerns, she said, “we created a signup through a website where people could schedule and come in and drop off electronics and paper for shredding. We took all their items from their cars.”
At its 3,000-square-foot facility, she said, people “can watch us shred the paper; 100% gets baled and goes to a paper mill.”
Collectors and haulers such as Green Girl and Western Disposal haul much of their household, commercial and drop-off recyclables to the Boulder County-owned Materials Recovery Facility, known as MRF or “the murf” and operated by 45-year-old nonprofit Eco-Cycle, one of the nation’s first four recyclers.
Marti Matsch, Eco-Cycle’s deputy director, agreed that the closure of the Chinese market has turned out to be good, especially for “authentic recycling.”
“Once it went to China, it was questionable what was happening there” in terms of what ingredients were being added to recycled materials. “I think it’s great that China stopped taking the world’s garbage, because nations are now forced to develop the domestic infrastructure and the markets in the U.S. for our own materials.
“There’s now a tremendous demand to build more infrastructure within the U.S.,” she said, “to buy products back and making them into something new.”
Even so, she admitted, things were tight at first. “We were accepting extremely low prices for our materials, so there was a lot less revenue. We had a rough year, but no layoffs,” she said. “Our No. 1 mission is zero waste, so we kept going. It’s not unusual for us to take materials that aren’t making much money, such as lower-grade plastics and paperboard cereal boxes that cost more money to process than to sell. We always had winners and losers.”
The winners include corrugated cardboard and aluminum, Matsch said. “We accept as much as we can authentically and responsibly market. Aluminum manufacturers are very happy to receive it. It’s a great closed loop because the market for it is going right back to aluminum manufacturing. Plastics can only be recycled once or twice, but aluminum or steel can be recycled infinitely.”
Eco-Cycle also operates the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials at 6400 Arapahoe Ave. in Boulder. Items recycled at the so-called CHARM center include books, mattresses, box springs, electronics, scrap metal, vegetable oil, cables, wires, printer cartridges, plastic bags, pallet-wrapping film, clothing, textiles, bicycles and bike parts, bike tires and tubes, freon-fueled appliances, other small appliances, fire extinguishers, ceramics, sinks, toilets, concrete, plate glass, white foam packaging, and large plastic items such as laundry baskets and children’s wading pools.
“The books often go to schools or dentist’s offices,” Matsch said, “and we have a book collector that looks for valuable old ones.” CHARM partners with Denver-based Springback to take mattresses and box springs, and Blue Star Recyclers, which she described as a “fellow social-enterprise nonprofit that hires 80% employees with disabilities.”
The return a recycler can get can fluctuate wildly, Western Disposal’s Carroll noted. “It’s a commodity, just like wheat.”
Those market forces are reflected in the “tipping rate” that EcoCycle charges haulers such as Green Girl and Western Disposal for various materials that are “tipped” out of their trucks at the MRF. For instance, in 2014, Eco-Cycle actually rebated a hauler $25 per ton for old corrugated cardboard. This year, however, it was charging the hauler $37 per ton for it in January, but that charge had fallen to $8 per ton by November.
Western Disposal, a 51-year-old family-owned business, serves Boulder, Broomfield and neighboring counties with waste-collection services, including trash, recycling and, in most areas, compostables collection services.
In a fall 2019 newsletter, Western noted that Eco-Cycle “is doing a great job of finding markets for the material that it is processing” and “they also continue to invest in equipment upgrades to improve efficiencies and help make the quality of processed material that the international and domestic mills now require. But the revenue side of the business, with escalating processing costs and soft global demand, is in a very difficult position. … When facilities like the Boulder County Recycle Center no longer have the revenue that they had become accustomed to from the sale of recyclable materials and higher operating costs to further clean contaminants from the recycle stream to make materials marketable, they had no other choice but to begin charging, and charging significantly more to the entities delivering material to them, both private and public. This in turn has necessitated those entities providing collection services to pass on their higher recycling costs to homeowners and businesses. The tipping fees being charged by the Boulder County Recycle are adjusted monthly and have no correlation to the consumer price index.”
Kate Bailey, Eco-Cycle’s policy and research director, acknowledged that “recycling works in that we have to be able to sell to a manufacturer, and that translates back into the cost of providing recycling services.
“There was a time when we always paid,” she said, “but a couple years ago that shifted in large part because of China. That set the market into disarray. A couple years ago, we saw 25-year lows in almost all the commodities at the same time. We’re really glad to see some things rebounding, but we’re a commodity like everything else — and we also have to deal with the costs of labor, inflation, oil, all those factors. China was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Thankfully, there’s been widespread reinvestment in U.S recycling, more mills opening, so we can do more processing in the U.S. That was the silver lining. We should have been making those investments before cheap and easy China.”
The good news for haulers, she said, is that “the Boulder County recycling center has had lower rates than others across the state, and the county deserves credit for working to lessen that increase.”
Even so, she said, she has high hopes for a bipartisan bill to be introduced in January in the Colorado Legislature “to change the funding so we’re no longer subject to those wild fluctuations. More would be paid by the companies that made the packaging.”