Keeping Recyclers in the “Green”
Early this week, Yahoo! News reported that recyclers all over the United States are facing “a dramatic slump in the recycling market.” Despite the claim made in the article that “Even the biggest players didn’t see it coming,” the downturn wasn’t a surprise to the owners of City Carton, one of the Midwest’s largest recycling companies.
In fact, when I spoke with Andy Ockenfels, president of City Carton, a few weeks ago, he warned me that the industry is suffering a downturn due to the sluggish economy. For this green industry to stay viable, the alternatives are to find new markets or to ride out the storm until they can make a profit once again.
There’s a real crisis looming, he told me. “Without a market to buy the things we collect, they’ll eventually end up in the landfill. And if the downturn goes on too long, more and more recycling companies will go out of business. Then, when the economy does come back, there’ll be no companies around who can handle the waste.”
To many consumers, recycling is little more than a “feel-good” solution to the solid waste problem. We know it keeps trash out of the landfill, which keeps landfills from filling up so fast. Our main concerns are along the lines of avoiding tax increases or higher garbage fees and — perish the thought — having to find room for a new landfill somewhere near where we live.
Those of us who have to separate our recyclables into organized groups may grumble a bit. It’s inconvenient and requires vigilance to keep the plastics out of the mixed paper pile, the glass out of the tin.
If we’re lucky enough to toss mixed recyclables into a single, commingled bin at the curbside, it’s a lot less hassle. But it’s still an extra step that sometimes becomes optional, if we’re in a hurry or just don’t remember to do it right.
It’s easy to take for granted that our trash isn’t all going to be dumped into a netherworld of waste and that some of it will be reused. Consumers in general may not know exactly how, but we’re happy that each laundry detergent bottle and cereal box will have another life when it leaves our hands.
“Milk bottles can be made into things like deck ‘wood’ and outdoor benches,” said Brian Holtz, vice president of marketing and sales at City Carton, in Iowa City. “When the housing market is strong, there’s a big demand for this product. But when no homes are being built, there’s not as much need for recycled plastic.”
And that’s a problem. Recycling companies across the U.S. are feeling the pinch. I asked Holtz how recyclers will be affected if they don’t have enough buyers for the stuff they’re collecting.
“It’s like a farmer and a grain elevator. When he has to store grain because the selling price is too low, his costs go up. It’s an added line on his balance sheet.”
The temporary solution is to “stack it higher. Some items [like cardboard] can’t get wet, so we can’t stack it outside,” he says. “We have to put more bales into buildings.” That’s fine, as long as they have space to store it.
But what happens if a recycler runs out of storage space before selling the bales already warehoused? “If he keeps collecting, eventually it will have to go to the landfill, and he’ll lose money in landfill fees. If the price doesn’t go back up, that recycler will eventually go out of business,” Holtz said.
City Carton has been in the business of remarketing recyclable goods since 1967, long before “recycling” was a household word. This family-owned and -operated enterprise may feel the pinch somewhat less than other companies with shorter ties to their end market, according to Holtz, but the pinch is still there.
To understand why City Carton is holding strong, he says, it helps to understand the whole system. “Before we ship any materials to the end-market customer, we work with them to learn about their needs. We often go to their factories to see what they’re making and talk with them about how we can best meet their specifications. Then we provide them with the exact specifications they require.”
Holtz explained that companies he sells to have specific tolerances for contaminants, such as cardboard. “If a very small number of cereal boxes end up in the cardboard container, that’s okay. But too many will reduce the strength of the product made from recycled cardboard. The chipboard that’s used to make cereal boxes just isn’t as strong as corrugated cardboard. If we have too much chipboard mixed in, our materials will be rejected.”
And that rejection costs money. Picture 1,500 to 2,000 pound bales of cardboard. Then picture a convoy of semis trucking the materials long distances to the factories where they’ll be used. Now imagine what happens when the materials are rejected because they contain contaminants such as plastic garbage bags, magazines, or newspapers. The costs of rejection can be substantial. Worse yet, after all the effort of recycling, bundling, and shipping, those materials may still end up in a landfill.
City Carton’s differentiating factor, according to Holtz, is that they provide “quality product. We invest the time and effort to sort the materials,” he says. “And because our end markets know they can count on us for high-quality materials, we have long-term relationships that will survive the downturn.
“Still, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in pricing [for what we sell], and some orders have been cut. This is the first time in history that we’ve seen this kind of drastic cuts. We still do have orders, but we’re feeling the slowdown.”
Everyday Goods from Recycled Materials
Yet, the housing market is hardly the only place recyclables end up. In fact, the there’s a lot most consumers don’t understand about the relationship between the junk that we toss in our recycling bins and the products we buy every day.
If you’ve got a box of tissues nearby, check the bottom. Chances are the box will be made from “100% recycled materials.” That’s an example of the chipboard Holtz was talking about. The same is likely to be true of the cardboard packaging that holds batteries, razor blades, pencils, and cake mixes. The rolls in toilet paper and paper towels are recycled materials, too.
And that t-shirt you’re wearing? If it’s not 100% cotton, hemp, or bamboo, it may just be made of soda bottles. After being thoroughly cleaned, the bottles are chopped and melted, then spun into fibers that are woven into cloth. A coarser fiber is used to make the polypropylene bags you find in nearly every grocery store chain.
Another impact on the recycling market is the downturn in the U.S. auto market. I was surprised to learn that Ford and General Motors both use a large amount of recycled materials in the new cars that they make. Trunk carpets and window frames are made of plastic soda bottles. And Volvo estimated that their S40 2007 car used as much as 47% recycled, non-metallic materials.
According to information on City Carton’s website, “New ways to use recyclable materials are invented all the time.” That gives hope to the prospect that recyclers will be able to find other markets for their goods. But we don’t have to wait for new markets to open up before we, as consumers, do our part to help keep these critically important businesses operating in the black — or should I say, “in the green.”
How to Help
“The most important contribution you can make as a consumer,” Holtz said, “is to carefully separate your recyclables. Read the instructions we post by the bins. Then follow them. When you put the wrong item in a bin, that’s a contaminant. It costs us time and money to remove it — and sometimes we can’t.”
Before our interview, I looked inside of the City Carton collection bins. In the mixed paper bin, there were three full plastic garbage bags. They probably held shredded paper, though I couldn’t really tell. In theory, the person who brought them was doing something good: dropping off shredded paper to be used in another way. But what about the bags? “They’re contaminants,” Holtz said.
So, the same person who took the time to recycle their paper just cost City Carton money in labor to remove the bags. All they would have had to do was open the bags and dump the paper. They could even have reused the bags for another recycling run.
Glass bins are also a source of contaminants. Some people aren’t aware that mirrors, windows, and Pyrex containers can’t be recycled. “All we want is glass bottles,” Holtz said. “Be sure to read the labels on the containers.”
But sorting isn’t the only problem for recyclers such as City Carton. “It’s important to rinse out the cans and bottles before bringing them in for recycling,” Holtz said. “Clean materials help control rodents and bugs. It’s a health and safety issue for our workers.”
Taking advantage of my captive audience, I asked Holtz to solve some of my own recycling dilemmas. These guidelines are true for City Carton, but be sure to check your own recycling company to find out if they also apply to you.
BPGL: I’ve always heard that lids from plastic bottles, such as milk bottles, can’t be recycled. They don’t have numbers on them. Can they be recycled?
Holtz: Yes, you can toss them into the plastics bin.
BPGL: What about the plastic pumps for hair products, window cleaners, and the like? They have springs inside. What should I do with those?
Holtz: Toss them in with the plastics. The springs are very tiny and the amount of metal they add to the plastics isn’t enough to go over the contaminant limits.
BPGL: I noticed that the sign on the plastics bin says 1-5 and 7, but not 6. Can’t I recycle number 6 plastics?
Holtz: Yes, you can, but only the plastic bottles. We removed the #6 from the sign because people recognized it as polypropylene, the same material that a lot of other consumer products are made from. They started bringing in kids’ swimming pools, toys, hoses, even bowling balls.
We can’t recycle those things, and we spend a lot of money cleaning them out of the bins. Then we have to pay landfill costs to dispose of it. People don’t always realize that by dropping off their trash, they’re dumping waste on our property, and that’s breaking the law.
BPGL: I’ve seen a particular man take magazines out of the bins on several occasions. Is that legal?
Holtz: No, in fact, it’s stealing. Once the materials are placed in the bins, they become our property.
BPGL: Is it safe to put confidential papers, like bank statements, into the bins? After all, the bins are huge, and a single piece of paper will get lost in all the rest.
Holtz: Until those bins are taken into our warehouse, they are unsecured. Again, it’s illegal to take anything out of our bins, but that doesn’t stop some people. My best advice is to do what I do with confidential papers and anything that has their name and address: shred them. Identity theft is a huge problem.
BPGL: Many consumers are moving to the use of canvas shopping bags to reduce the waste associated with plastic bags from the grocery store. Can those plastic bags be recycled?
Holtz: Yes. We have bins that are marked “Plastic Bags,” for just that purpose. Be sure to put only clean and empty bags in the bins, however. Those aren’t trash cans.
BPGL: What’s the most important thing we can do to assure that recyclers like City Carton will stay in business?
Holtz: Keep bringing us your clean recyclable materials. And follow the guidelines for sorting. The economy will recover, and if we can keep our expenses in line, we’ll still be here once the market improves.
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