The State of Recycling in Nebraska — 2019

Mark Twain once wrote, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” And so it has been with recycling. There is no doubt that “recycling as we know it” has changed. While the recycling industry is going through a rough patch, it is in fact, a well-established, multi-billion-dollar, international industry with measurable, positive impacts on the economy. Recycling generates hundreds of thousands of jobs, conserves resources by providing feedstock for new, recycled-content products, saves landfill space, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and conserves materials extracted from the environment.

The Business of Recycling

Recycling is a commodities trading business that deals in specific materials collected from residences and businesses. Once a recyclable item leaves a curbside bin or drop-off site and is hauled to a processor, it becomes a “recovered” commodity. Next, materials are baled and sent to mills to be processed into feedstock for new products.

There is a common misunderstanding that recycling should be free because materials recovery facilities (MRFs) don’t have to pay for the materials they receive. But the fact is, recycling has never been free. Recycling business expenses include collection containers, sorting and baling, fuel and energy, facilities, equipment, labor, freight, and other common overhead costs. Like many other commodity-trading industries, recycling is a cyclical industry – markets rise, fall, and rise again Recycling’s Wake-up Call: A Brief History

Since the 1990s, in the early days of free trade agreements and the World Trade Organization, the U.S. began exporting recyclables to China for processing to take advantage of their cheap labor, lack of environmental restrictions, and China’s economic development goals. Many U.S. mills that once processed recyclables (mostly paper fiber) closed because they were unable to compete. Twenty years later…

In 2013, China launched a program called “Operation Green Fence” to improve environmental quality in their country by reducing contamination allowed on imported recyclable materials. In 2017, China announced its “National Sword” policy that defined contamination restrictions and banned the import of several recyclable materials, including mixed paper and mixed plastics. In 2018, contamination allowances were tightened even further, effectively shutting down overseas markets. The U.S. – China trade war escalated in 2019, exacerbating the situation. China’s import restrictions on mixed paper were particularly harsh, causing imports to drop from hundreds of thousands of tons per year to virtually nothing. This