At a 97,000-square-foot warehouse east of Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, yellow City of San Antonio trucks drop their loads of mixed plastic, bottles, cans, paper, and cardboard, piling up like sand dunes on the building’s floor.
Front-end loaders scoop these recyclables and dump them into bins, which feed the materials into a maze of conveyors, sifters, and separators. Workers also line the belts, pulling out loose plastic bags and other contaminants that make their way into the waste stream. At the end of the chain, compactors extrude bales of paper, cardboard, and aluminum.
“This building is chewing up everything it can, all day long, to get ready for tomorrow’s trucks,” said Richard Coupland, vice president of Republic Services, the waste management company that serves as the recycling contractor for the cities of San Antonio and New Braunfels.
Republic, one of the largest waste management companies in the U.S., is in the business of turning waste materials into commodities with market value. But since around late 2017, Coupland explained, changes in the global recycling market have rendered most of those commodities almost worthless.
“The recycling industry as a whole is in a state of crisis,” Coupland said.
Over the past two years, Coupland, who lives in Phoenix, has been speaking to reporters around the country about his industry’s rollercoaster ride. China announced in July 2017 it would stop accepting what was then a flow of container ships bearing Western waste materials flowing into the country’s ports. Since then, all that glass, aluminum, paper, and plastic has flooded the global market, sending prices into a tailspin.
In some parts of the country, this has thrown residential recycling programs into chaos, with recycling contractors no longer able to earn enough revenue from selling their products. Several municipalities in the St. Louis area canceled their recycling programs last year after a midsize local recycling business stopped taking residential materials. As of January, at least half of Philadelphia’s recyclable waste was being incinerated.
For now, San Antonio’s recycled materials are still finding their way to useful markets in the U.S., Republic executives said. From the Republic plant in San Antonio, recyclables might go northeast as far as Kentucky or southeast as far as Louisiana. None of the city’s legitimate recycled materials have yet been diverted to a landfill, they said.
“All of our contracts we have now say if we pick up recycling, it has to be recycled,” said Tom Armstrong, Republic’s manager of municipal sales. “It can’t be landfilled.”
For now, the City of San Antonio hasn’t changed its pro-recycling messaging, still calling for residents to dispose of most forms of plastic in blue recycling bins. The City even encourages residents to recycle their Styrofoam food containers, though Republic executives say their plant can’t handle Styrofoam.
“It’s the devil,” Coupland said when asked about the white, spongy, plastic-based packing material. “If you put Styrofoam in there, it’ll just shred it.”
But changes have come to some area municipalities, which use different recycling contractors. In June, Alamo Heights, Terrell Hills, and Olmos Park stopped accepting glass in recycling bins. Olmos Park’s ban extended to many types of plastic containers, and Terrell Hills stopped collecting multiple plastics, magazines, and glossy paper.
With only two years left on San Antonio’s residential recycling contract with Republic, big changes could be on the horizon for San Antonio residents, too. In the bidding process for a new contract, the City could see increased recycling costs and a change in the type of materials accepted.
For now, San Antonio residents can help by making sure to recycling properly, Republic executives said.
- Know what to throw: Recycle only plastic bottles, glass bottles, cardboard, metal cans, and paper. “When in doubt, throw it out,” Coupland said.
- Avoid contamination: All recyclables must be completely clean and dry. The bottom, grease-soiled part of a pizza box, for example, should be composted, not recycled.
- Recyclables should always be loose, never bagged.
Like many cities, San Antonio has a problem with contamination in its recycling stream. Last year, 20 percent of the material that made it into City recycling carts should have been composted or thrown away, according to City statistics.
A glass “hall of shame” in the Republic plant shows off the most absurd items placed in a recycling bin: swords, ammunition magazines, a 1990s-era video camera, and a metal conquistador helmet are among them.
But Republic executives say the city truly stands out in one category: diapers. For some reason, more soiled diapers make it into San Antonio recycling bins than anywhere else, officials said.
“We don’t understand what human logic is leading to that,” Coupland said.
Though public education about how to recycle can help, Coupland said Republic’s contracts with municipalities, which average seven years, have to be “brought up to current realities.” On average, homeowners across the U.S. will have to pay around $4 to $5 more per month for recycling services, he said.
“It’s not insurmountable,” Coupland said. “In some communities, it’s $1 or less, but it depends on where you are in the country.”
Republic’s plant is showing signs that business has been tough, with material sometimes stacking up in a facility that’s not truly designed for storage. On a Nov. 21 tour, plant manager Tim Tiemann pointed out bales of OCC – old, corrugated cardboard – stacked halfway to the ceiling. The Amazon effect of two-day shipping options coupled with China’s ban have led to a glut of OCC in the market, with the commodity being nearly worthless.
Still, Republic sells San Antonio’s cardboard to a mill in Louisiana, Tiemann said. But last week, it was down for maintenance, and the cardboard had to wait on the plant floor for about a week.
For glass, the lowest-value commodity, Republic has a buyer in Fort Worth that in turn sends the glass to a nearby fiberglass manufacturer.
Republic used to make a profit on every ton of San Antonio’s recycled glass that it sold, Tiemann said. Not anymore.
“It’s a cost for us to operate,” Tiemann said. “We have to pay them to take the material.”
Around 37 percent of the material Republic’s San Antonio plant generates is mixed paper, he said. Recycled newsprint used to earn the company $130 per ton, but now it costs money to dispose of paper, he said.
The value for aluminum remains strong, and so does the environmental benefit of recycling the relatively light and valuable metal, Coupland said.
“The industry sits on contracts, coast to coast, that are completely underwater,” Coupland said. “And yet we continue to do our job, day in and day out, until the cities get in line and reset the problem.”
For now, City officials are still focused on diverting more waste out of the landfill through recycling and composting programs. San Antonio has a goal of diverting 60 percent of its waste away from the landfill by 2025, as measured by tons of material collected. Last year, the rate was 36 percent.
In an interview earlier this month, David McCary, the City’s director of solid waste management, called it a “big mistake” for residents to stop recycling, even in the face of ominous recycling news from other parts of the country.
“I would say to those that have doubts, do not be misled,” McCary said. “Remember, you’re in the greatest country on the planet: America. And our resources and ability to respond to changing markets has always been who we’ve been.”
McCary pointed to emerging domestic markets for recycling, with U.S. mills wanting to buy products that previously went to China.
“We’re starting to see a trend with some of the businesses starting to build, wanting to handle those materials,” McCary said. “So the entrepreneurship, which is what America is known for and very great at, is starting to surface.”
Coupland called the entrepreneurship around recycling encouraging but noted the industry is not ramping up nearly fast enough to dent the supply glut.
“There’s a lot of activity, but none of it is really stepping into the size or the magnitude of the gap that was created by China,” he said.