The recycling industry is changing dramatically -- new types of materials are being produced and discarded, the international appetite for recycled materials is shrinking, and municipal recycling programs are evolving to deal with market fluctuations. New Hanover County is no exception.
Recycling can be confusing, with what’s acceptable varying from place to place. And, “what’s acceptable” is always changing over time.
Joe Suleyman, Director of New Hanover County’s Environmental Management Department, says this constant change is the biggest obstacle to proper and frequent recycling.
“A lot of things that were taboo 10 years ago, like you have to rinse out everything and make it spotless or don't put it in your recycle bin -- that's no longer the case. Things like you have to remove staples and paper clips and stickers from your mixed paper products that, that's not the case anymore. And so with the evolution of technology, things have actually gotten easier to recycle.”
But despite this, not everything is recyclable -- and items like plastic bags, very small plastic items, and greasy pizza boxes cause more harm than good. The key to sustaining recycling programs, Suleymen says, is increasing education and aiming to reduce plastic consumption in the first place.
Factors like plummeting oil prices, a surge in complex plastic production, and China’s ban on most waste imports have turned profitable recycling programs into an expense. To learn how all of this is affecting us locally, WHQR spoke with Joe Suleyman.
I know in many towns, recycling is becoming costlier. It used to be towns would get money for their recyclables, and now it's becoming an expense. What's the status here?
“Well absolutely, it has definitely created a cost burden to our department to maintain the recycling programs we have in place. Three years ago, we were generating revenue from the sale of recyclable commodities, whereas now we're having to pay a fee for the same amount of material.”
So how has the county been responding to this kind of price hike?
“For lack of a better term, we've come up with the phrase ‘recycle less, recycle smarter.’ We're all fairly familiar with the numbers on plastics, a ubiquitous symbol of the three bent arrows with the number in the middle. And those numbers range from #1 through #7. But right now we're only finding markets for #1 plastics and #2 plastics. Those still have a strong value, whereas #3 through #7 plastics actually have a negative value. You have to pay to get rid of them.”
So how do you envision the future of recycling? Do you think it's in jeopardy because of these increasing costs and China's restrictions? Or do you foresee plants being able to adapt to these changes?
“If I had a crystal ball and could sprinkle a little bit of hope in there, I would say that U.S. investment in domestic infrastructure to collect, process and market those commodities would be the best outcome. Two, is that manufacturers of packaging material will incorporate more re-recycled content.
And third, I would say that as a recycling industry, technology has always gotten that industry ahead of the problems, with the investment and research into different sorting technologies. That will certainly help upgrade the quality of that material, which is very important when prices are low. So I can see some very interesting technologies evolve out of the predicament we're in.”
We've been talking about a lot of things here, but I'm just going to ask the key question: why recycle? What are the key benefits, and why is it such an important thing to think about in this day and age?
“There are a lot of excellent reasons to recycle, all of which stand alone are reason enough. It reduces our reliance on landfills. Two, is it preserves our resources. Three, is it creates jobs. There are all sorts of industries that spring up, not only in the collection, processing, sorting and marketing of recycling, but there are also all these industries that make things out of recycled content material.
And lastly, the carbon footprint involved with recycling is much, much lower than having to mine or log for those raw materials as well. So there are a bunch of great reasons, and like I said, each one of them stand alone as good enough, but when you combine them all together, it truly is compelling.”
Thank you so much for joining me. Have a great rest of your day.
“You too. Thank you.”