The Recycling Crisis: Why has there been so many changes?

The global recycling system is in upheaval. Read our take on what's going on, and what you need to know.

What do an excess of natural gas, an environmental crisis, and indifference all have in common?  The answer...they’ve wreaked havoc on your recycling program. The factors have caused the U.S. recycling industry to collapse.  It’s a familiar story of supply and demand. Effective recycling efforts on the national and local levels result in an oversupply of recycled material and a record low price for petroleum-based virgin plastic, coupled with shrinking demand for recycled material means the process of recycling no longer makes financial sense.

The quick backstory.  China, the biggest user of recycled scrap material has started to phase in its ban on the most recycled materials.  China accounted for 51% of the global recycled imports, however as part of its anti-pollution efforts, they are phasing in reductions to scrap imports.  Today there is a glut of recycled materials, already resulting in a 10% drop in the value of plastic scrap and a 36% reduction in the price of corrugated cardboard.

Bales of plastic that have been processed through a recycling facility

The world is awash in recycled materials.  According to Bloomberg News, the U.S. is expected to produce four times more recycled material by 2020 than it does today.  Recycling does save energy, as much as 95% for recycled cans, but the cost of managing the recycled scrap, along with the competition from the low cost of petroleum, often makes recycling a money-losing endeavor.  In Nashville, it costs recycling haulers 10% more to recycle glass than it does to dispose of the same material. Some communities are stockpiling recycled goods while they look for a market, other communities are simply dumping the recycled material into landfills.

Our goal today may not be to recycle more but to recycle better.

Related image
It's important to understand what cannot be recycled.

How does all of this impact organizations in middle Tennessee?  First expect your recycling costs to increase, perhaps to even be consistent with the cost of landfill waste.  Second, local recycling companies are getting much stricter in allowing unacceptable debris in the recycled goods.  Previously, unacceptable items would be manually pulled from the recycling during processing. However, now that it costs more and more get rid of the recycled scrap, waste processors need to lower their cost per ton by reducing the labor costs related to processing.

Too many contaminants in a recycling bin result in a violation notice.

What can you do?  Keep recycling as pure as possible, talk to your recycling handlers and ask for guidance about how you can help them provide better quality recycled material for the global marketplace.   Look for lowest cost waste handlers, purchase items that have a high degree of recycled material in them, and find ways to reduce adding to the waste stream all-together. In the next SFM Newsletter, Part II of this article will illustrate the creative ways that organizations are reducing waste.

Remember: We recycle because it is the smart approach.

For more information about SFM and our systematic and sophisticated approach to facility management and maintenance please visit

About SFM

Since 1998, the mission of SFM is to be the preeminent model of facility management and maintenance for schools, churches, and other non-profits. The SFM model sets us apart from other facility management companies. SFM has developed a unique and systematic approach to managing in-house and outsource services.

The strength of SFM is formed from the diversity of skills, collective knowledge, and the shared network of our facility management team. All members of our team are constantly striving to meet the unique needs of our customers. This blog offers an opportunity to share some of the collective conversations and learning experiences taking place every day at SFM.