Recycling in a State of Change

Michael Timpane

Michael Timpane
RRS Vice President

Florida public practitioners have a right to be baffled about good residential recycling policy and contracting. A quick look at what has happened over the past 10 years confirms great waves of change.

Since the early 1970s, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the modern municipal solid waste (MSW) system were based on measurement by weight for permitting, facility capacities, and pricing. The scale was king in contracts and diversion goals. Enter Florida in 2008 with a quixotic 75% diversion goal based on weight. Compliance towards the target has been difficult with changing definitions, materials, and responsibilities. Now Floridians are facing challenges to traditional recycling materials like plastic and glass, along with a movement towards non-weight based goals with the support of respected think-tanks like Hinkley Center, UF-ESSIE, and EREF.

There is also constant drumbeating around the evolving ton. Although a constant, this concept gets buzzworthy with each market disruption, and gains speed. For instance, since 2008, newspaper consumption has dropped more than 40% in Florida and in corresponding recycling programs. Besides material usage, the physicality and diversity of recyclables has also changed to include lighter and more diverse units (requiring more processing time per ton), and the relative ratio between materials has shifted to more OCC, plastic, and film, but less metal, paper and glass (though the latter a greater weight percentage in Florida recycling programs).

In 2017, China banned the import of certain recyclables which has glutted the US market with mixed paper and #3-#7 plastics (40% of which has been shipped to China over the last four years). The full impact has yet to be seen (fully implemented as of Jan. 1), but export dependent Florida MRFs are in for a storm surge that is overwhelming the recycling industry.

Floridians are also wrestling with opinionated over-reporting and intense lobbying on negative trends contending recycling does not make money. Much like Florida’s citrus crops, inherent and severe price volatility frequently and unpredictably changes the value of recycling’s commodity offset. But the cleaning and sorting of recyclables is part of the overall service. Unfairly isolating it with risk and tying it to commodity swings has proven disastrous. Recycling is by far the cheapest part of the total solid waste bill in Florida at approximately $1.25-$2.00 per week for collection and processing (not including commodity offsets in new contracts).

Even with these complications, public demand for expanding recycling services is now at an all-time high; over 85% of households nationwide expect recycling as a municipal service for more and more materials. And other strong overlapping socio-environmental movements like zero waste, circular economy, and GHG emission reduction have grown swiftly alongside (and have affected) recycling policy.

The pressure and complexity of the residential recycling system is enormous and dynamic, and can overwhelm many municipalities. There are several tools that have been developed collaboratively across the value chain that can help municipalities plan their next round of recycling procurements. Here are some of the best, easiest to understand, and most recent:

RRS also encourages public practitioners to conduct their own independent research, prior to a procurement or renewal, to identify best practices that fit with their program and goals. Augmenting that with resources from professional consultancies, peers, and non-profits to guide, facilitate, and implement recycling plans and contracts, the waves in Florida can be ridden to successful outcomes through careful partnerships.