As environmentalists, corporations and the public increasingly focus on the mass of plastics discarded every day, they are running into a stubborn problem that has yet to be solved. The recycling market continues to sputter, most recently from weak demand and low prices. Waste Management, the Houston trash collection and disposal company, expects its earnings from recycling to shrink by about $100 million last year compared to 2017.

A robust recycling market is critical not only to reducing plastics in the environment — a key focus now as coffee shops ban plastic straws and consumers bring reusable bags to supermarkets — but also to the Gulf Coast’s booming petrochemical industry, to which growing concerns about plastic waste pose a threat to its business.

“Bans (on plastic products) that are being announced, and not just in the U.S. but around the world, are proliferating,” said Nick Vafiadis, vice president of plastics for IHS Markit. “They’re not going away. This is a real fact of life for the industry now.”

Americans are recycling more than ever — some 35 percent of consumer trash was recycled or composted in 2015, according to the most recent government data — and scrap recycling, which includes used appliances, manufacturing leftovers and some items from curbside bins, was a $117 billion industry in 2017. But big price swings continue to challenge the industry. The price of mixed scrap paper, for example, has plummeted from $75 a ton in 2017 to basically zero, said Joe Pickard, chief economist at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group.

Much of the plunge is due to China, once the world’s biggest importer of recyclable materials. China has stopped accepting a variety of mixed paper and plastic scrap, citing efforts to clean up the environment, and plans to add other scrap products to its banned import list.

Recyclable products that China didn’t ban have stricter rules regarding contamination. The amount of trash accidentally mixed in with most recycled products can’t exceed a half-percent. For comparison, trash makes up 25 percent of what arrives at Waste Management’s facilities that sort and bale recyclables. That’s 500 pounds of contaminants for every ton of recyclables.

Other buyers, meanwhile, are following China’s lead and adopting stricter contamination standards. Waste Management, for example, sells mixed paper to paper mills. The mills, which reuse the fiber to make cardboard boxes, cereal boxes, cartons, etc., are tightening their standards.

“All the other paper mills that we deal with took that same message back to us saying, ‘Hey, we need better quality materials,’” said Brent Bell, vice president of recycling for Waste Management.

First Step

Reducing contamination is largely considered the starting point for creating a more stable U.S. recycling market. And that means teaching consumers what they can and cannot put in recycling bins.

For example, a triangle with a number on the bottom of a plastic container does not automatically mean it’s recyclable. Nos. 1, 2 and 5 are widely accepted in recycling programs across the country. Garden hoses and plastic bags, which can get tangled in sorting equipment, are always prohibited. Food-stained cardboard boxes are considered contamination, too.

“If our customers are saying, ‘Hey, how can I help out the economics of my current program?’ The No. 1 thing they can do is get the contamination rate down lower,” Bell said.

Waste Management is investing in machinery to better reduce contamination. Optical sorters, for instance, can identify a specific material and then use gusts of air to separate that material from the pack.

In Houston, FCC Environmental Services, a Spanish company with U.S. headquarters in The Woodlands, will take over the city’s recycling contract in 2019. Better sorting equipment and a $25 million facility slated to open in March were key in winning the Houston contract.

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