Since 1977 we have helped to pioneer the field of resource recovery. In 2018, led by our Zero-Sort Recycling facilities, we recovered over 800,000 tons of recyclable materials.

Recycling conserves natural resources, prevents pollution, saves energy, and reduces waste sent to disposal facilities. It can also support American manufacturing, create jobs, and increase economic security by providing a domestic source of materials. For all of these reasons, when someone wants to improve the environmental impact of their business or household, recycling is often the first step they take.

An Industry in Crisis

Each week, Americans dutifully wheel their recyclables to the curb, unaware that the service they have come to expect and value is struggling to survive. At recycling facilities across the country, the crisis is clear: contamination levels are too high, commodity markets are too low, and recycled materials have few places to go.

Recycling has reached a crossroads. On its current path, residue rates will continue to rise, the demand for recycled commodities will dwindle, and recycling could become unavailable to most homes and businesses.

With a forty-year commitment to recycling, we at Casella want to lead the way to another path, a path that is headed toward the full recovery of clean, high-quality recyclables, and toward the establishment of diverse, domestic markets for recycled commodities. Through swift, decisive action, we believe that such a recovery is possible.

In this section, we describe the steps we’ve taken and our plan of action for the coming months. If all goes well, in our 2020 report, we hope to write that the commodity crashes of 2017 and 2018 were a blessing in disguise, shaking everyone out of complacency, and setting recycling programs on a path to true sustainability.

Recycling Markets Plummet

The chart depicts trends in Casella's Average Commodity Revenue (ACR) per ton, which is what we are paid for our sorted and processed recycled commodities, less the related processing, residue, and transportation costs.

As a percentage of 2011 levels; through June 30th, 2018

Made in China

In 2017/2018, China rocked global recycling markets with a swift series of policy changes. The impacts - a 90% drop in market value for mixed paper and a 63% drop in the value of the traditional recycling stream - have left recyclers reeling.

It is no secret that a significant portion of the products in the global economy are manufactured in China. So it comes as no surprise that China became the top importer of recycled plastic and paper, the raw materials for all those products and their packaging. In recent years, Chinese manufacturers developed such a strong appetite for material, that they accepted it even with high contamination.

This lax approach changed abruptly early this year, when China banned the import of 24 types of recyclable materials and established exceedingly stringent quality standards for other recyclables. Even recyclers with high quality standards - including Casella - are now struggling to sell their outputs.

To date, China's actions have had negative consequences. With a shortage of recycled feedstock, demand for virgin wood pulp from timber harvesting has risen. Meanwhile, many recycling programs throughout the western world have been forced to curtail their recycling programs or dispose of recyclables.

Recycling is the right thing to do, but it must be done right. Contamination from items such as plastic bags and trash add unnecessary costs that must be reduced through education and outreach.

What's in your bin?

Over the past twelve years, the composition of the recycling stream has changed dramatically. There are two main drivers: shifts in the types of products and packaging in the marketplace and changes in customer decisions about what goes in the recycling bin. Below we describe those changes and the ways we’re adapting.

Paper & Cardboard make up most of the recycling mix.Cardboard has increased as more consumers shop online and receive boxes by mail. Paper has declined as customers receive their media digitally rather than in the form of newspapers and magazines. We make processing equipment investments to accommodate these changes.

Glass is a growing percentage of the recycling mix. This strains recycling facilities because glass is expensive to process and markets are very limited. Some municipalities have begun to exclude glass from their recycling mix because of these challenges. We are exploring several ways to make glass recycling economically viable.

Trash in the recycling mix has reached alarming levels, due to confusion and carelessness about what belongs in the recycling bin. Our blended average has reached 9%, and individual loads come to us with contamination levels as high as 25% or even 50%! The impacts include risks to employee safety, damage to equipment, facility shutdowns, degradation of recyclable material, increases in disposal costs, and an overall decline in the efficiency and effectiveness of recycling systems. Coupled with recent market disruptions, the entire industry is grappling with this threat. We are working with our customers and partners to improve education and outreach.

Plastic & Metal are the high-value commodities in the recycling mix. Their overall presence (as a percentage of total weight) has not changed significantly. The presence of antiquated container deposit systems in some states continues to siphon valuable aluminum and polyethylene out of the municipal recycling stream, harming the economic equation that enables recycling of lower-value commodities like other plastics, mixed paper, and glass.

As the recycling mix changes, we must continuously innovate, upgrade our infrastructure, update our education programs, and help policymakers rethink legislative models. We must also be disciplined in deploying a business model that can evolve along with the recycling stream to keep recycling programs strong.

*Our focus today is on Paper, Glass, and Trash, which make up over 2/3 of the current recycling mix. We consider Mixed Paper and Glass to be "At-Risk", meaning there's not enough demand for them in the marketplace, and we need to cultivate new markets. Trash obviously does not belong in the mix, and we need to re-educate our customers to bring this number back down to 0%.

Percentages reflect outbound MRF tonnage, updated through June 2018

A Multi-Pronged Strategy to Save Recycling

In our last report, we laid out a 6-part strategy to build a sustainable recycling industry, and we have made important progress. We participated in a collaborative pilot to address recycling contamination. We invested in new glass processing equipment and began developing new outlets for glass. We helped stabilize the business of recycling with a new approach to pricing.
Our work over the past few years has prepared us for the even harder work that lies ahead. In the face of plummeting global commodity prices and skyrocketing contamination, everyone who values recycling needs to join in to correct its course. Here is our multi-pronged approach.
Customer Education:
We use mailers and signage to tell our customers what's recyclable and what's not. Over the coming year, we will supplement these basic tools with enhanced web content, targeted social media campaigns, a recycling ambassador program, and more. We will also sample more inbound loads to pinpoint contamination sources.
Eliminate customer confusion (as measured by survey) and achieve 100% accuracy in sorting (0% inbound contamination)
New Markets
Recyclers are too often reliant on one or two buyers to purchase their product lines. The closure of a single mill or glass plant can leave an entire region with no home for their outputs. As an industry, we need to collaborate with partners to actively cultivate multiple new markets for each of the products we produce.
Establish multiple markets for each commodity, including domestic options
Policy Support
We are engaging with industry groups and meeting with elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels to show them the urgency of the recycling crisis. We are requesting their support with measures like education programs, market development, and bottle bill reform.
Earn the support and understanding of elected officials throughout the northeast
Risk and Reward Sharing
As recycling facilities in other areas are shutting down, we have been able to keep our doors open because an ever-growing proportion of our customers have switched to formula-based pricing in which we all fairly share in the risk and reward of recycling
Get 100% of customer base onto a shared risk/reward pricing program
Design for Recycling
Designers and manufacturers are the missing link in the recycling chain. With each new line of products or packaging, they have the opportunity to create something that contains recycled content and is recyclable. Each time they fail to do so, society pays the cost, and the resource renewal vision is further delayed. To achieve 100% resource renewal, we need to get the designers and manufacturers on our side.
Increase the proportion of packaging that has high recycling value by engaging product and packaging designers and university programs

Recycle Better

Can you recycle better? The items listed below DON'T belong in your recycling bin. Click here for more tips and resources.
DO YOUR PART: Eliminating these sorting mistakes will help to protect our workers and sorting equipment, and safeguard the recyclability of the other materials.
Putting the Pieces Together
Our Goal:
Track Progress by Monitoring:
Our Focus Over the Next Two Years:
Goal Achieved
In 2015, we recycled over 1 million tons of recyclables and organics. This would not have been possible without our proactive focus and commitment to shaping a sustainable recycling industry.
Learn more about our Sustainability Initiatives
Capturing value from waste through innovative resource solutions.
Our comprehensive Resource Solutions enable us to apply our knowledge and experience in recycling, collection, organics, energy and landfills to create economic and environmental value for our customers and our communities. Click here to download the PDF version of our 2018 Sustainability Report
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