National Recycling Coalition (NRC) Drives Collaborative Workshops to Grow Domestic End Markets
Recycling markets have been in crisis since late 2017 as Chinese environmental policies led to severe restrictions on the import of curbside generated recyclable commodities. For the last two decades, China has been the cornerstone of the global recycling market. It is the largest consumer in the world for recycled commodities and the U.S. was the biggest supplier, exporting 30%-50% of its curbside recyclable materials.
Broadly speaking, the U.S. system was optimized with this end market in mind. However, concerns of material quality and “carried waste” that was mismanaged by end users in China led to a major shift in what recycled materials could be imported. Central to these restrictions were the core materials generated by community recycling programs – mixed paper and mixed plastics, which were outright banned, and cardboard (old corrugated cardboard – OCC) and various newsprint grades, which became subject to what many consider to be unattainable quality standards. These streams represent around 75% of the material generated through typical community recycling programs, and a huge portion of this had to find new buyers – either alternative export destinations or domestically.
The resulting market disruption has been described by some industry stalwarts as the most significant impact in the last 40 years, others call it unprecedented. Reverberations were felt immediately throughout the U.S. (and other large exporting countries). This led to higher costs for some communities, reduction in the types of accepted materials in others, landfilling of mixed paper and plastic bales in some cases, and some programs shutting down all together. Prevailing economic and business models were no longer working. A fundamental issue driving this crisis was the lack of domestic end markets to handle the sudden oversupply of recycled materials that were now looking for new homes.
Those with foresight saw this market disruption as a window of opportunity to redesign the U.S. system – focusing on regionalized markets that are more sustainable and resilient. The National Recycling Coalition (NRC) recognized this and immediately stepped up to provide leadership. The volunteer driven organization served as a platform for collaboration aimed at forging ahead to strengthen and grow domestic recycling markets. The leading edge of this effort included a regional recycling market development workshop series inaugurated in 2018, just months after the market collapsed. Four workshops in 2018, organized in partnership with key state recycling organizations (SROs), featured local end markets and recycling experts. These events were attended by more than 250 people. In 2019, four workshops are planned in states needing to revitalize end-use markets for recyclable materials.
RRS, a mission driven consulting firm focused on material recovery and sustainability, was engaged by NRC to help drive this effort. RRS is applying its decades of experience in developing and working with recycling programs across the country, helping communities to divert and market recycled materials, and facilitating multi-stakeholder collaborations to drive solutions, and is working with NRC to create a road map for the future.
The process of these day-long workshops was a morning featuring presentations by stakeholders operating within in the local recycling system. This included actors from across the recycling value chain, including local governments, haulers, MRF operators, end markets, and state and federal government agencies. The idea was to tell the story on the ground from varying perspectives, covering challenges faced as well as opportunities to move forward. This systems approach was essential to facilitate the type of comprehensive and collaborative approaches needed for envisioning and developing a new recycling system that is more sustainable, regionalized, and resilient.
Following a networking lunch, the afternoon of each session included a facilitated, interactive exercise aimed at giving a voice to all participants, allowing them to work through steps to identify key problems, brainstorm potential solutions, and explore possible action items.
While still early in the process of reshaping recycling markets, these workshops have led to a broader, more integrated understanding of the diversity of problems and potential solutions facing different parts of the country from many stakeholder perspectives along the value chain. They have established interconnections among key actors such as collectors, processors, and end-users of recycled materials needed to bring forth a reimagined system that will better serve economic and environmental outcomes well into the 21st century. Over the next 18-24 months, the U.S. will see a reinvigorated recycling system with jobs and capital investment at the heart of building the new recycling economy. Momentum continues to grow and the coalition of leaders participating in these workshops are driving positive system change using the lessons learned, and connections made, through the efforts of NRC and its partners.
For more information on the 2019 NRC Market Development Workshops visit: https://nrcrecycles.org/markets-workshops/
2018 Workshop Data
April 4: Portland, OR with AOR (140 attendees)
- Key themes: Need for regional infrastructure and end markets, need to address contamination.
July 31: Atlanta, GA with GRC (67 attendees)
- Key themes: Strong regional end markets, need for more supply of material, need to address contamination.
October 23: ST Louis, MO with Resource Recycling Conference (30 attendees)
- Key themes: Overview of previous workshops and solution prioritization.
November 7: Chicago, IL with IRA (45 attendees)
- Key themes: Market is adapting but a long way to go, contamination continues to be an issue, need for more producer involvement.