In early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the economy into lockdown, Wisconsin recyclers couldn’t give away scrap paper.
Last month, bales of that same material were going for more than $100 a ton, while plastic milk jugs are fetching five times what they did in 2019.
It seems reports of recycling’s demise have been exaggerated.
Buoyed by an economic recovery and the continued growth of e-commerce, demand for recycled consumer materials has pushed prices to their highest levels in at least a decade.
All those plastic takeout containers and Amazon boxes have to come from somewhere, after all, and that has made recycled material more competitive.
“Most people don’t realize that the commodities they recycle are a key link in the supply chain,” said Jennifer Semrau, who oversees recycling for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Last year Wisconsin’s recycling processors shipped more than 750,000 tons of used paper, plastics, glass and metals into regional and national supply chains, saving valuable space in landfills while also conserving energy and natural resources.
And while that volume was down slightly from 2019, higher prices have helped offset the costs of curbside collection and even pushed some programs into the black.
The plan entails using part of Madison’s Yahara Hills golf courses for landfill and composting sites as well as a “sustainability campus” that could eventually support recycling and resale businesses.
The average price paid for used corrugated cardboard in the Midwest hit $185 a ton in October, the highest in two decades, according to data from recyclingmarkets.net, the industry’s primary source of market data.
In early 2020, Midwest recyclers were paying paper mills to take mixed paper. That material, a component in both cardboard boxes and products like tissue paper, hit $105 a ton last month, the highest price in a decade.
Even more surprising to those in the industry, the price for high-density polyethylene — more commonly known as plastic milk jugs — hit a record high of more than $2,000 a ton in August, and for the past year and a half has been worth more than aluminum, long the market leader among recyclables.
“We hear a lot of stories when things are down,” Semrau said. “Seeing this rebound just demonstrates that we stuck with it .... It’s nice to see that the economics are more favorable and the value is being recognized.”
The higher prices are good news for Wisconsin municipalities, which are required by law to collect certain materials like paper, cardboard, and containers made from aluminum, glass, and some types of plastic.
Under a new contract, every percentage point of trash in recycling bins will cost the city an additional $1 per ton.
Many have seen revenues outperform their projections, in some cases enough to cover other program costs.
Vernon County’s solid waste department is sitting on about $30,000 in profits that it plans to use to replace one of its three trucks.
Thanks to a revenue-sharing agreement with its recycling processor, the city of Madison has netted nearly $750,000 so far this year, which is on track to be the first since 2017 in the black.
“The last few months are some of the best months we’ve ever had,” said recycling coordinator Bryan Johnson. “You ride the wave, one way or another.”
A new contract that starts in January does away with revenue sharing. Instead, the city’s tipping fees will be fixed each year based on the content and value of materials delivered in April of the previous year, which Johnson said will make it easier to work with the city budgeting process.
“If it stays this high or higher it’s possible we would get paid for every ton we deliver, but I don’t want to give anyone false hope,” he said. “The benefit is, going in year after year, we know what the cost is going to be.”
While recycling processors are also benefiting from the higher prices, there are downsides.
Danielle Pellitteri, vice president of Pellitteri Waste Systems, notes that many of the same economic factors driving up commodity values are also increasing the cost of equipment and labor to sort and bundle the recyclables they receive.
“The increased value of the recycling markets does not outweigh the increased costs of doing business we have been experiencing,” Pellitteri said.
And businesses can’t count on prices always being favorable.
“You definitely have to have a long-range view to be in the recycling game,” said Lynn Morgan, spokesperson for Waste Management. “You have to be able to stomach the downturns.”
“I would rather have a more steady market,” said Matt Harter, business development director for Green Circle Recycling in La Crosse. “But I’m not the one who gets to decide that.”
Mixed picture on plastics
Even with the bump in prices for milk jugs, lots of plastic is still ending up in landfills. The reasons are complicated.
Wisconsin law bans #1 and #2 plastics — used to make soda bottles and milk jugs — from landfills, along with aluminum and tin cans, glass bottles, cardboard and most paper.
There’s a market for such materials, Semrau said.
But single-stream recycling programs like Madison’s also collect other plastics — including dairy containers, PVC and buckets — that may not be so easy to sell, especially if they can’t be easily sorted.
Much of the food and other products we buy are packaged in plastic film that contains multiple layers of plastics with different properties. One might keep oxygen out, another protects against moisture, while yet another holds ink.
Each year the world produces about 100 million tons of this multilayer plastic, which can’t be recycled with traditional methods, said George Huber, a professor of chemical engineering at UW-Madison who is developing techniques to separate those layers with solvents.
“Plastics are a very complex chemical material,” Huber said. “There’s not one easy way to recycle all plastics.”
As a result, only about 13% of consumer plastic actually gets recycled, Huber said. The rest ends up in landfills, incinerators and the ocean.
As for the materials that can be recycled, commodities such as recycled cardboard and plastic tend to be bellwethers of the general economy, said Robert Boulanger, co-owner and pricing director for recyclingmarkets.net.
“It’s really supply and demand,” he said. “It follows the curve of the general economy.”
In fact, Boulanger notes, prices for cardboard, paper and some plastics have begun to dip in the past couple of weeks as supplies have begun to match demand.
Semrau expects a market correction is in order, but she expects prices will remain favorable.
“The demand is not going away,” Semrau said. “I would be shocked if we go back to where paper is zero dollars.”