For North America’s largest haulers, recycling pleasure has given way to pain. After enjoying big returns from higher commodity prices in the first quarter, three recycling giants noted tumbling fiber prices in April.
“In the first quarter, we saw recycling commodity prices up almost 70 percent in our recycling facilities. Yet in the beginning of the second quarter we’ve seen those prices drop significantly,” Jim Fish, president and CEO of Waste Management, said during an April 26 call with investors. “It kind of reminds us: Don’t get too giddy about the commodity prices, because they can come back pretty quickly.”
Waste Management, Republic Services and Waste Connections all reported major recycling gains in the first quarter (see related story covering their financial returns). Those higher revenues at the publicly traded companies were driven by rising prices for commodities, particularly fiber.
But those prices have since fallen, with Waste Management suggesting China’s “National Sword” imports crackdown at least partly to blame. The campaign, which is targeting a variety of waste materials, was announced in February.
In response to a question about the effects of National Sword, Fish said Waste Management saw ONP prices fall 40 percent and OCC prices fall 10 percent in one week’s time.
“When we look at pricing of commodities, the volatility is greatest where the Chinese have the greatest impact,” Fish said. “For us, for example, virtually all of our newsprint goes to China, so when the Chinese decide they’re not going to buy newsprint, as they did a couple of weeks back, it really dramatically impacts the price of ONP, hence the drop of 40 percent. We end up selling about maybe 30 percent of our OCC to China, so while they still have a big and material impact on price, that one was only off about 10 percent a couple of weeks ago.”
Republic Services, the second-largest residential hauler in North America, also reported a price drop in late March and into April after a strong start to the year. Chuck Serianni, chief financial officer for Republic, told investors on an April 27 conference call that the average commodity price, excluding glass and organics, was $162 per ton during the first quarter, up 60 percent from the prior-year period. But those average prices have since fallen to about $155 per ton, he said.
Republic’s CEO, Don Slager, said the company still believes that, over the course of the year, the prices will still be at or above what the company predicted for 2017 as a whole: $140 per ton.
Waste Connections, the third-largest residential hauler, has seen OCC prices fall from their first quarter average of $165 per ton to about $140 per ton, Ron Mittelstaedt, the company’s chairman and CEO, told investors on an April 27 conference call. That amount is still 35 percent higher than the second quarter 2016 level, however.
North America is not alone is seeing lower recovered fiber prices moving into the second quarter. The same trend has been experienced in Europe, according to Recycling International.
As a result of the volatility, Waste Management’s leadership plans to delay providing a full-year estimate of recycling numbers.
“In the past, we’ve discussed the volatility that market prices for commodities create in our recycling business,” Fish said, “and it appears that 2017 will be an even more volatile year than we anticipated.”