State Recycling Slows Amid Covid Pandemic While Household Volumes Drive Commercial and Industrial Markets

By Allison Crawford 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Kentucky Government Recycling Section (KGRS) was sorting, shredding, baling and selling an average of 2.3 million pounds per year of paper and cardboard recovered from state agencies.  

Now, that number hovers around 1.5 million. The reason: more people working from home means less waste produced in the office. 

KGRS was not the only entity to see a drop in the collection of recyclable materials. Commercial and industrial recycling operations also reported reduced activity during the pandemic.  

 According the U.S. EPA, 6,440 tons of paper and paperboard containers and packaging was “landfilled,” compared to
tons recycled in 2018.  KGRS uses this industrial paper shredder to securely destroy sensitive state documents and prepare waste paper for recycling. When running, the shredder creates enough paper dust to require a dust management system. Photo by Allison Crawford

However, as commercial and industrial waste volumes declined, residential waste volumes increased.  

Republic Services, the second largest waste management company in the country, saw large increases in their residential recycling volumes from the beginning of the pandemic to April 2021, aluminum was up 17%, recycled glass was up 13% and recycled plastic was up 7%. Cardboard made the biggest jump, increasing by as much as 63% in some of the company’s residential markets.  

According to the company, cardboard’s leap was due to the pandemic-prompted increase in online shopping. Prices for recovered fiber (recycled paper and cardboard) also reflected the online shopping increase. In January 2020, the price per ton of sorted office paper was $87. As of June 7, 2022, that price was sitting at $221. In the same period, the price for a ton of cardboard jumped from $25 to $129. Prices have also increased for certain plastics and metals due to the pandemic’s supply chain disruptions.  

Price increases, along with newer, more efficient technologies and business models are making the industry more attractive to investors, according to founders of recycling startups.  

However, the pandemic is not the only event affecting recycling markets. The industry continues to grapple with China’s 2018 enactment of a policy known as National Sword that drastically reduced its purchase of recovered materials from the U.S. According to researchers at the University of Buffalo, China’s import of recovered plastic dropped by 92% and its import of recovered paper dropped 56%.  

The sudden drop in demand caused many cities across the United States to suspend their recycling operations. In Kentucky, the recycling rates reported by the Division of Waste Management dropped 12% from 2018 to 2020.  

Oil prices also have a big impact on the industry. John Brown, an environmental scientist in the Division of Waste Management’s (DWM) Recycling Assistance Section, said higher oil prices increase demand for recovered plastic by making recycled plastic cheaper to produce than virgin plastic. If oil prices drop, however, the demand for recovered plastic would also drop, he said.  

However, fluctuations in the recycling market do not affect operations at KGRS, which is required by law to provide recycling services to state agencies, said Recycling and Local Assistance Branch environmental scientist Brian Bentley.  

Recycled white paper and recycled colored paper are used for different purposes, so they must be separated before being shredded, baled and sold. EEC employees presort waste paper in these office bins to help streamline the recycling process for KGRS staff. . Photo by Allison Crawford

Despite the drop in state paper and cardboard waste, the recycling center still recovered enough material to bring in about $110,000 last year. Although maximizing economic efficiency is top of mind at KGRS, Bentley said a main goal is to keep as much waste as possible out of the landfill.  

“Recycling is important because it saves on disposal costs and prevents our landfills from filling up with materials that could be recycled and reused,” Bentley said. “Recyclable materials have value and we need to capture those resources by placing recyclables into the recycling bins at work and at home.”  

Bentley said even disruptions in the recycling industry can be a learning experience. “It’s important that we learn from these times so we can prepare if we see these challenges in the future.” 

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