Last week, we discussed how recycling is collected and processed in Columbia, but the story does not end there. The collected items still need to be recycled into new products.
This is where we should clarify that the city of Columbia is not a manufacturer. We do not melt the aluminum or convert newspaper into pulp. We only collect and sort the material before it gets sold to a manufacturer or broker. This process is fairly straightforward, but few people actually know how it works, and that raises a lot of concerns from our most dedicated recyclers.
In Columbia, we use a bidding process to sell our recycling. Any manufacturer or broker that is interested in our material can become an approved vendor and submit a bid for each commodity (e.g. aluminum, newspaper, No. 1 plastics, etc.). This can include a short- or long-term contract or a single purchase agreement. We typically receive at least one bid for each commodity that covers the cost of freight and offers a value for the material. However, in recent years, this has been challenging for three out of the 10 commodities: No. 3–7 plastics, glass and mixed paper.
The No. 3–7 plastics and mixed paper, in particular, have been difficult to sell because of low market values in recent years. Similar challenges exist for glass recycling, but market value is not the primary reason. Our facility is not properly designed to sort glass from other recyclables, and vendors are not interested in glass that contains plastic straws and other contaminants.
We could improve the quality of our glass — and increase its value — by completely redesigning our facility with new sorting equipment or by asking residents to separate glass from all other recycling.
For these struggling commodities, especially No. 3–7 plastics, some vendors are willing to cover the cost of freight and pay nothing for the material. We usually accept these bids because it ensures that the material is being recycled. However, this is not ideal in the long term and we must rely more on the revenue from higher value commodities, like cardboard, to help cover operational expenses.
In the case where no bids are submitted, we must store the material behind our facility until the market rebounds or a new vendor is discovered. Depending on the year, this waiting period can take six to 12 months, and it is not uncommon for us to accumulate a large amount of No. 3–7 plastics behind our facility. During that time, the top layer of plastic can become brittle from exposure to the sun and some bales might need to be discarded because they are no longer considered recyclable. We try to minimize this issue by stacking the bales higher, which helps protect the material below, but it would be better if we had a new facility with more indoor storage space.
It has always been understood that the financial and environmental benefits for each commodity are different. We expect most of our revenue to come from cardboard, newspaper, aluminum, No. 1 plastics and No. 2 plastics. The other commodities might generate less revenue, but recycling these items still helps extend the life expectancy of our landfill. We also must consider the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when recycling items into new products rather than extracting virgin material from the environment.
It is true that recycling markets are volatile, but that is to be expected when you are dealing with multiple industries. Each commodity is mostly independent from the other, and the market values are constantly changing. The value of newspaper might be low for a few months, but the value of No. 2 plastics could be steady or increasing during that time. It really depends on the economy, international trade, environmental regulations, natural disasters and the development of new factories in the United States.
In summary, the vast majority of recycling that we collect actually does get recycled. We can even confirm that most, if not all, of this material is being recycled in the United States. The exact location depends on the highest bidder at any given time, but in recent years, this has included factories in Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio, Louisiana, Georgia, New York, New Jersey and even right here in Missouri. It is important to understand that the recycling markets have not vanished. The main issue is that the value of some commodities have decreased in recent years, and it will be difficult to balance the current Solid Waste Utility budget until those markets rebound.
Please visit the city of Columbia website at www.CoMo.gov/utilities/solidwaste or download our phone app, COMO Recycle and Trash, for more information.
Ben Kreitner is the Waste Minimization Coordinator for the city of Columbia’s Office of Sustainability. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Missouri Recycling Association (MORA).