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VOL. 11 | NO. 36 | Saturday, September 8, 2018

Companies Weighing Options to Continue Recycling

Move by China creates glut of recyclables domestic mills can’t handle

Special to The Daily News

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Recycling capabilities for many Memphis businesses and institutions were stopped or substantially reduced in recent weeks, even as global warming continues to escalate.

Republic Services confirmed that its Memphis recycling facility, ReCommunity, recently stopped accepting recycling items from commercial and institutional sources.

The change affects recycling at businesses and institutions across Memphis, from Memphis International Airport to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“Waste Management is currently picking up the recycled items as waste,’’ airport spokesman Glen Thomas said. “Like many other businesses across the nation, the airport is examining alternatives and solutions that will allow us to recycle.’’

Tim Simcoe, St. Jude’s senior director of administrative services, said, “All businesses in the city are dealing with this same issue right now. We are exploring every option for recycling.”

A Waste Management spokesman said that company recently stopped collecting single-stream recycling from commercial customers.

That’s the kind of recycling that enables companies or institutions to do what Memphis households do: Heap all their recyclable plastic, paper, glass and metal into one bin, to be sorted later at material recovery facilities like ReCommunity at 3197 Farrisview near I-240 at Lamar Avenue.

“We recently had to stop accepting commercial recycling material due to high contamination,’’ Republic Services’ Jennifer Eldridge said in an email response to questions.

Contamination happens when loads of recycling include things like plastic shopping bags, Styrofoam, food waste, batteries and light bulbs, yard waste, clothing, construction debris and medical waste like needles.

But contamination has always occurred. What’s different now: The supply of recycling materials this year has so outgrown demand that recycling centers can demand pristine, cardboard-only materials, said Robert Cheney of Waste Management.

China skewed the supply-and-demand balance when it stopped accepting recyclable materials from other countries.

“China was the largest single consumer of recyclables in the world,” Cheney said. China had threatened to stop the recycling imports “but at the start of this year they ramped it up and they actually did it,’’ he said.

“So you end up with a tremendous amount of supply in the market … overwhelming domestic mills which are having to limit what they can accept,’’ he said.

The variety of acceptable recycling materials has shrunk, and flat, clean cardboard is the material of choice.

“Cardboard is the lifeblood of most processing facilities,’’ Cheney said. “It’s the most commonly accepted material. It’s the one that keeps the lights on.’’

Waste Management was informed in early August that the ReCommunity recycling center would no longer accept single-stream recycling from commercial sources.

So Waste Management started giving its commercial customers two options: Get rid of their recycling containers and treat all the items as regular solid-waste trash; or, for customers that discard a lot of material, recycle cardboard only.

The recycling setback is occurring as NASA continues to collect data showing the Earth’s surface since the mid-1900s has been warming at a rate that is unprecedented over millennia. The agency also calculates a 95 percent probability that human activity -- generating the pollutant carbon monoxide -- is the cause of the warming trend.

Republic Services has not stopped its commercial recycling in all its U.S. markets, Eldridge said.

“We are seeing high contamination rates across the country, not just in Memphis,’’ she said. “… We are working with our markets and our customers to find the right unique solution.’’

Republic’s commercial customers in Memphis have asked what they can do, she said.

“We know recycling is important to many of our local commercial customers and we are working with them on a case-by-case basis to find recycling solutions,’’ Eldridge said.

“If a commercial customer would like to continue to recycle, we can work with them to find the right solution.’’

Smaller, recycling-only operations like Memphis Recycling continue to provide services, but the change in market conditions has affected them, too.

Some commercial customers that want to continue their recycling programs are having to pay now, or having to pay more.

“We are doing recycling, but due to the market with single-stream, most of us in this market had to cut the program,’’ said Libby Carter, sales representative for Memphis Recycling.

“Single-stream is a mixed commodity… In our areas here, you are looking at zero value for mixed commodity. That’s why everybody had to back off from that,’’ she said.

Some customers that rented recycling bins but enjoyed free collections are now being charged for the collections, Carter said.

“The mixed market hit rock bottom,’’ she said. “You can’t go any lower.’’

The University of Memphis has used hauler Waste Management and Republic’s ReCommunity to recycle about 6.5 tons of material a month.

But the recycled tonnage has dropped substantially in recent weeks since ReCommunity informed the U of M that its material was too contaminated with plastic bags and that the U of M would be charged another $125 per ton when more than 10 percent of the collection was contaminated, said Amelia Mayahi, the U of M’s sustainability manager.

Now, Mayahi is preparing to change the labels on all the campus trash bins to emphasize that plastic bags are no longer allowed.

But so far, the campus is still receiving single-stream recycling service, Mayahi said.

“I have not heard anything about them not able to service us anymore,’’ she said. “That would be awful news.’’

Before the market for recyclables started weakening about two years ago, the university would be paid for what it recycled. Since then, the U of M has paid a tipping fee which has “steadily gone up,’’ Mayahi said.

Despite the challenges, she said, “we’ll continue to try to do the right thing.’’

The City of Memphis is relatively unaffected by the changes because it offers curbside recycling only to its 169,000 households.

However, the city recently has received calls for help from some big commercial and institutional users, said Philip Davis, the city’s solid waste deputy director.

“We try to play matchmaker and see where we can provide assistance in providing another alternative,’’ Davis said.

The city uses ReCommunity, too, and has its own challenges reducing the amount of contamination. Solid waste officials are laying the groundwork for an educational campaign they will mount by early next year, Davis said.

The city’s contract with ReCommunity allows a load of recycled material to be no more than 14 percent contaminated or ReCommunity can reject it.

“What ReCommunity has to do is sort that 14 percent to 0.5 percent to make that marketable to their outlets in China,’’ Davis said. “It’s costly. That’s why we are striving to have cleaner recyclables at curbside.’’


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