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Coronavirus pandemic disrupts recycling sector

Even as the vast majority of municipalities have not made changes to recycling service, the coronavirus impact has been felt in programs around the country. | VO IMAGES/Shutterstock

The global escalation of COVID-19 is hampering some North American recycling programs, impacting Chinese users of U.S. recovered fiber, constraining global shipping, denting stock prices and threatening an economic recession.

The coronavirus, which last week was deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), has grown steadily in scale since the first outbreak in China late last year. It is now in 159 countries, areas and territories. As of Tuesday, March 17, there have been more than 179,000 confirmed novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases globally and more than 7,100 deaths, according to WHO.

The U.S. government last week declared a national emergency, and the impacts are filtering down into daily life across the nation.

Cities and companies react

Even as the vast majority of municipalities have not made changes to recycling service, the coronavirus impact has been felt in programs around the country.

In Salt Lake City, officials committed to ensuring collection. The city’s sustainability department said it is “making plans to ensure garbage, recycling, and compost containers are collected as usual in the case of more widespread COVID-19 infection rates.”

Still, some communities have made the decision to adjust or suspend recycling collection, or gear up for potential disruptions.

Dalton, Ga. has paused collection service for two weeks beginning March 16.

“Because curbside recycling pickup requires sorting by hand and there are many unknowns about how the virus spreads from surface to surface, this service is being suspended to avoid chances of community spread,” the city stated in a release.

In Washington state, the city of Tacoma announced on March 13 its solid waste division was “experiencing some COVID-19 impacts, which may result in collection schedule changes for both residential and commercial customers.”

The city added that, in the case of collection delays, it would prioritize garbage collection above recycling, yard waste and other services. The release added the city will strive to collect materials within one week of the scheduled collection day. The Tacoma News Tribune reported the potential delays followed a higher number of employees taking sick time or precautionary time off.

In California, the Humboldt Waste Management Authority (HWMA) in Eureka temporarily closed its recycling center to comply with social distancing recommendations from local and federal officials. The closure means residents will not be able to redeem containers for their deposit value at that location.

“Because this virus can spread from person-to-person contact, HWMA is suspending [California Redemption Value] Buy Back activities in an effort to decrease person-to-person interactions while directly handling used aluminum, plastic or glass CRV materials at the Eureka Recycling Center,” the organization stated in a release.

A recycling center in Ashland County, Ohio is suspending drop-off recycling due to concerns over workers coming into contact with contaminated medical waste. The Times-Gazette newspaper reported a local recycling center is pausing the service because it sometimes receives bags with used tissues, hygiene products, medical waste and more. The bins will be temporarily removed.

Athens, Ala. suspended curbside recycling because a recycling contractor hasn’t been able to staff its facility. The contractor employs inmates at its recycling center, and with the state restricting movement in and out of correctional facilities, the center no longer has enough staff.

Following multiple COVID-19 cases confirmed in Michigan, the East Lansing Department of Public Works closed its recycling drop-off site along with other city facilities.

As part of a wider order banning gatherings of 250 people or more, the city of Vancouver, British Columbia postponed all drop-off recycling and reuse events throughout March and April.

Somerset County, N.J. will close its recycling center and suspend curbside collection beginning March 18.  The city of Franklin, Tenn. suspended curbside service after its processor shut down due to the coronavirus.

Companies are also taking steps to prevent exposure to the virus.

Alaska Airlines decided to halt on-board recyclables collection. In Oskaloosa, Iowa, multiple grocery stores stopped accepting aluminum cans in response to the coronavirus. The National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA), Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) and Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) issued best practice tips on handling solid waste and recyclables amid the pandemic. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a website with more general information and guidance for workplaces in light of COVID-19.

Pride Disposal in Sherwood, Ore. closed its drop-off recycling center and office altogether but stated that curbside collections will continue.

Industry events

The sweeping impacts of the coronavirus have been particularly visible in the conference and event world. The following are some of the event changes affecting the municipal recycling, plastics recycling and electronics recycling industries: 

Canceled (some may eventually reschedule):


Apex Recycling & Disposal of Eugene, Ore. announced it has begun disinfecting collection trucks daily and communicating with workers about best practices for sick leave.

Hazardous and medical waste handler Stericycle issued special instructions for waste that has come into contact with COVID-19 patients.

Dealt a blow, Chinese paper industry adjusts

Nine Dragons Paper, a major Chinese buyer of U.S. recovered fiber that has been significantly impacted by Chinese scrap import restrictions, noted the coronavirus has added challenges for the country’s packaging industry; however, the company added in a recent financial report, “with the resilience of China’s economy, [the company believes] the market will have a swift recovery under both the support and favorable policies of the state.”

Nine Dragons donated RMB 30 million (about $4.3 million) to help fight the coronavirus in China, along with 10,000 N95 masks and 30,000 articles of protective clothing.

Lee & Man Paper, another paper giant in China that buys U.S. recyclables, also gave a number of donations and adjusted its operations in response to the pandemic. The company is a major tissue producer and has donated a variety of sanitary goods toward China’s fight against COVID-19. Additionally, Lee & Man added new procedures meant to prevent infections at its factories.

“The company has implemented strict control measures,” according to an English-language coronavirus section of the company’s website. “Before entering the factory, every employee must complete the ‘prescribed processes’ such as putting on a mask, taking temperature, disinfecting the whole body and filling in the health information form.”

The paper company stated it has “gradually resumed production in strict accordance with the local government’s deployments, strictly controlling product quality and safety and maximizing production capacity, to ensure the supply of tissue and toilet paper needed in epidemic prevention and control and daily life.”

Shanying International noted that its North American subsidiary, Kentucky-based Phoenix Paper, in early February sent a shipment of donated masks to the company’s Chinese operations.

Impacts to shipping

Lee & Man is not alone in moving toward regular manufacturing operations, and according to shipping giant CMA CGM, freight strife in China has begun to lessen.

“Manufacturing activities are gradually picking up, more port workers and truck drivers are returning to their posts, and cargo flow is easing up at the major coastal ports,” the company wrote in early March. “In short, business operations have now entered the recovery phase.”

The China Scrap Plastics Association (CSPA) reports that factories are slowly resuming production. But “factory operation efficiency is still far from a desirable level in the absence of a full workforce to engage in regular production activities,” wrote Steve Wong, executive director of CSPA.

Logistics within China is heavily impacted, he added, with freight employees concerned about returning to work for fear of infections. This, Wong stated, is impacting the supply chain.

The coronavirus pandemic has massively disrupted ocean freight.

“Due to the coronavirus and less vessels operating, we have seen huge increases in ocean freight rates by double or even triple times the previous rate within the last two months,” Wong stated. As an example, he noted the freight rate for shipping from the U.K. to Hong Kong nearly tripled in the last three months, skyrocketing from $700 to $2,000 per container.

And despite the “unbelievably high rates,” Wong reported some shipping lines are fully booked through the end of this month.

For the Asian plastics recycling industry, which remains the largest market for U.S. scrap plastics, the shipping situation has caused “an upset to the normal moving of plastic scraps to user countries in Southeast Asia and a short-supply situation is seen,” Wong wrote.

During the first quarter of this year, shipping lines reduced the numbers of sailings across the Pacific Ocean. According to The Wall Street Journal, containership operators as of early March had cancelled over 110 sailings bound for North American ports; normally, there are about 200 containership sailings across the Pacific a month.

The reduction came as Chinese factories produced fewer goods and the Chinese logistics industry has struggled to move products to and from ports. Because of the production slowdown, fewer ships are needed to bring goods to North America. As a result, fewer ships and containers have been arriving on U.S. shores, meaning fewer were available to make the return trip to Asia.

Paper industry publication RISI reports the lack of shipping capacity has reduced recovered fiber exports from the U.S., Europe and Japan. Sources described difficulties getting containers for exports and rising costs to ship recovered paper.

The Wall Street Journal reported U.S. railroads and truckers serving ports are also being affected, with drivers struggling to pick up and drop off containers because of reduced gate capacity at ports. The Los Angeles Times wrote about the disruptions hurting truckers and dockworkers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the busiest ports in the Western Hemisphere.

Hitting stock values and the economy

Pandemic concerns sent global financial markets into wild fluctuation and spawned fears of an economic downturn. Financial institutions Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan in recent days predicted a recession will hit the U.S. economy this year as a result of the coronavirus.

Waste management companies and major end users of recycled materials have seen significant stock value declines during the past week. Waste Management, Republic Services and Waste Connections essentially lost all stock-value gains they’d seen since early 2019, whereas WestRock and International Paper dropped to their lowest share prices in years.

Credit rating firm Moody’s on March 17 published a report showing the waste management and packaging sectors as “largely resilient to coronavirus-related issues” under models employed by Moody’s. Global shipping, however, was classified as having “high exposure” to coronavirus fallout.

Experts disagree about how long it will take for the U.S. economy to rebound from the turbulence. But a disruption in the U.S. economy, whether short-term or long-term, would certainly affect the scrap sector.

Adina Renee Adler of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries noted that scrap companies are the “first step in a supply chain,” so any time the manufacturing industries talk about supply chain disruptions, that includes scrap processors.

“Manufacturers curtailing production means they’re demanding less material, and we could have a supply glut again,” Adler said.

Meanwhile, a development separate from the coronavirus posed further problems for the scrap plastic market outlook. Oil prices plummeted last week after a disagreement between OPEC and Russia over oil production cuts. These tanking oil prices represent “one of the worst ripple effects seen by the plastic scrap market,” wrote Wong of the CSPA.

“While most of the recyclers have been in a dire liquidity situation due to very slow moving inventories arising from effects of the coronavirus, a buy-cheap-tomorrow sentiment is now looming in the market and has deterred buying interest all around,” he stated.

Associate Editor Jared Paben contributed to this report.

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