The last quarter of 2015 brought with it many recycling industry conferences, several of which I had the good fortune of attending, reporting from or even participating in as a speaker or session moderator.
The late 2015 events took place in Madrid, Hong Kong, Singapore and the cities of Ningbo and Shenzhen in China. Topics and materials covered included metals, paper, plastic and end-of-life electronics. Throughout this publication, readers will see mentions of these conferences and the presentations made there.
A unifying theme and common topic of discussion at all of these events was that 2015 was a tough year to be a profitable recycler and that many signals were pointing to 2016 as offering more of the same.
The leading source of stress has been the declining value of nearly all secondary commodities, with line graphs and bar charts showing prices in 2015 having the clichéd appearance of a bear market. Prices are lower and margins are tighter, nearly everyone agreed.
While the concerns are legitimate (and the damage in the form of layoffs and bankruptcies all too real), few made proclamations warning about the future of the recycling industry overall. Collectors and processors were clear—their customers do not want to see material head to a landfill.
“Although 2016 is likely to provide its challenges, the support recycling has enjoyed in the past 15 years will continue to prompt decisions in favor of the recycling option over disposal.”
In the metals and paper sectors this has seldom been the case, as even in downturns enough value remains attached to these materials that a revenue stream of some kind can most often entice scrap generators to welcome a recycling container near their loading docks.
The collection for recycling of many types of plastic or end-of-life computer and telecom equipment is less well-established and sometimes less likely to involve payment. But other incentives seem to be supporting recycling activities. These include the corporate sustainability movement, product stewardship systems and, in the case of electronics, the critical process of protecting and destroying confidential data.
For recyclers struggling to avoid red ink as prices decline, the notion that corporate managers and politicians still support recycling is by no means a cure-all. Politicians report to taxpayers who can balk at subsidising recycling too generously, and corporate sustainability officers generally do not have carte blanche to recycle at any cost.
Much like 2015 before it, 2016 is likely to provide its challenges to recycling company owners and managers. Volumes collected may go down before they come back up, and regulations may force the collection of some items that are unprofitable to recycle. Ideally, though, the support that recycling has enjoyed in the past 15 years will continue to prompt decisions in favor of the recycling option over disposal.