- The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has issued 21 disposal waivers for unsorted single-stream recycling material since November. Amounts range from "unspecified," which the DEP said was usually small, to 300 tons or multiple trailer loads in one case. As of publication, only three waivers remain current.
- The issue isn't directly about markets, but a lack of available processing capacity due to contamination concerns. As more material recovery facilities slow down their lines, or run loads through twice, they can't keep up with the usual demand. "Effectively the MRFs are really full," said John Fischer, DEP's chief of commercial waste reduction and waste planning, who emphasized the limited nature of these waivers. "It's only allowing them to go for disposal when they cannot find a recycling outlet that will accept it."
- So far waivers have been issued to Waste Management, Troupe Waste Services, FM Services, ABC Disposal Service, Noonan Waste Services, Gilbert Trash, Jet-A-Way, Graham Waste Services and Automated Material Handling.
Sending this material that residents or business customers have already sorted to landfills and waste-to-energy facilities isn't ideal for anyone involved. The DEP continues to stress the importance of finding options for recycling, as required by state law, and has purposely written many of the waivers to last for just a matter of days or weeks.
Local company E.L. Harvey & Sons was recently in the news for its stockpiling challenges because of low commodity prices and many others on the West Coast have reported similar effects. This trend of MRFs running out of processing capacity has been less common, or at least less reported.
According to Fischer, common examples include smaller private haulers that may have lower priority over existing municipal contracts at MRFs or haulers that operate their own MRFs but have reached capacity. While this isn't the same as MRFs not being able to find markets for material, it's all connected to the broader effects of China's import policies. Like in many states, Massachusetts recyclers have also been forced to up their efforts through reducing line speeds and adding labor to meet new contamination standards.
"The capacity dynamic is an outcome of the market dynamics because of the push for greater material quality and contamination," said Fischer. "It is, at it's heart, a market issue."
The DEP had no predictions about how long this might continue and doesn't maintain a record of current processing capacity. That is one of many areas the agency will be studying this year as part of a comprehensive capacity survey ahead of the state's new 2020-2030 Solid Waste Master Plan.
Now that China's import restrictions have officially taken effect, with new contamination standards coming into full enforcement in March and the potential for further bans in the future, it's become increasingly clear that this will still be a dominant story in 2018. Stories and images of stockpiled bales in parking lots around the country have already captured people's attention. Now that evidence has emerged of material not even making it through MRFs at all in one state it begs the question of where else this might be happening.