While there are some similarities between recycling materials domestically and internationally, there are also many differences between the two.
The recycling market has continued to struggle with low commodities prices, and some international scrap material buyers are no longer purchasing materials due to the low value of recyclables.
Waste360 recently spoke with Moore Recycling Associates CEO Patty Moore about the current challenges in the recycling industry, the pros and cons of recycling materials domestically versus shipping internationally and what we can expect to see for the future of recycling materials domestically.
Waste360: The recycling industry has recently faced a lot of challenges. What challenges has the industry overcome and what challenges is the industry still battling with?
Patty Moore: There are two big issues the industry is faced with today: the changing waste stream and the low value of scrap. The waste stream is becoming lighter because there is less paper and more plastic, which increases the cost per unit of collection and processing recyclable materials. The combination of these two challenges has placed significant pressure on the whole recycling industry.
Waste360: What are some of the pros of recycling materials domestically versus shipping internationally?
Patty Moore: The true value of recycling is when it replaces virgin materials and reduces energy, greenhouse gases, water use, etc. And by recycling domestically, we gain all of those benefits on a local level. Other benefits of recycling domestically include economic support by providing lower-cost feedstock to local businesses, a direct feedback loop on quality, an ability to know and have a strong buyer/supplier relationship, the ability to easily solve disputes and more consistent buying.
Waste360: What are some of the cons of recycling materials domestically vs. shipping internationally?
Patty Moore: Although I disagree, some folks see the immediate feedback loop on quality as a con because it’s much harder to sell poor-quality material to domestic buyers. I think the biggest con is the lack of domestic demand and infrastructure for some materials, such as mixed paper and mixed plastic.
Waste360: What has worked in the past with both recycling domestically and shipping internationally, and what hasn’t worked?
Patty Moore: Clearly, China has been a very large buyer of scrap materials from the U.S. because its economy has expanded. China’s demand has created an outlet for a whole array of materials that the U.S. did not have any infrastructure to recycle, such as mixed paper, mixed plastic, some metals, electronic scrap, etc.
China’s demand essentially created new secondary material specifications and supply, many of which have been adopted domestically and, as supply grew, the U.S. infrastructure to recycle them has also grown. Ultimately, this demand helped create enough supply for U.S. businesses to invest in recycling those materials here in the U.S.
What has not worked is that a large portion of that new supply was not clean enough for U.S. standards, but that is changing as exporters are finding it much more difficult to move contaminated materials.
Waste360: What do you see for the future of recycling materials domestically?
Patty Moore: I believe the trend toward domestic use of recyclable material will grow as the cost of separating and reclaiming materials in the U.S. becomes more comparable with the costs in China and other developing countries. Ultimately, the material will flow to any region of the world that has a need for lower-cost raw materials or a demand for recycled content.
Waste360: What else will you be covering during your session at Recycling Summit?
Patty Moore: I will discuss the perils of not improving quality. There is some demand for low-cost material in developing areas of Southeast Asia, such as the Philippines and Malaysia. Those areas will impose their own “green fences” if the flow of low-quality material continues.
Waste360: Anything else you would like to add?
Patty Moore: It is healthy for there to be both domestic and export demand as long as the quality level of the two is comparable.