On the Bluewater Recycling Association plant outside of London, Ont., an aluminum pop can is essentially the most precious item they receive.
It’s value greater than paper. Greater than plastic. Greater than cardboard.
Selling these products is how recyclers make a profit — and aluminum is the moneymaker. Though it only makes up two per cent of every thing that’s trucked into the Bluewater plant, the metal is value 25 per cent of the corporate’s revenue.
And yet, even aluminum isn’t proof against an industry whose profits are plunging.
“Last 12 months this time, we were selling it for about $1,900 a tonne,” said Bluewater Recycling Association president Francis Veilleux. “This 12 months, it’s closer to $1,300 to $1,400 a tonne.”
After China stopped accepting much of the world’s recycling firstly of 2018, the market was flooded with product. The dwindling variety of buyers who’re left demand only the highest-quality material — and at a fraction of the price.
Only two plants still accept Veilleux’s aluminum. Aluminum pie plates and cat food tins aren’t any longer accepted. Just pop cans and beer cans.
In today’s bleak latest recycling reality, the worth of commodities — like paper, plastic and glass — has tanked.
WATCH: The awful financial reality for recycling programs in Canada
Some items, like low cost plastic, don’t even have buyers anymore. Recyclers are having to pay to do away with them. And while recycling was never a money-making enterprise, the business model was feasible.
Now, for some, it’s a burden.
“Garbage and recycling is the #1 rising cost that municipalities are facing at once. Higher than police or ambulance or medical or the rest,” said Amanda O’Neill, director of the West Yellowhead Waste Resource Authority, which handles recycling for 20 rural municipalities in midwestern Saskatchewan.
“The prices are going up and up exponentially.”
In Ontario alone, the typical market price for mixed paper fell 110 per cent from August 2017 to January 2019. The values of newspaper and cardboard dropped 50 per cent each. Film plastic — the sort utilized in shopping bags — dropped 53 per cent.
Toronto has lost hundreds of thousands in revenue.
“We’re taking a look at a between $8-million and $9-million hit last 12 months with our lost revenue,” said Matt Keliher, general manager of solid waste management services for the City of Toronto.
The sharp drop in profits has put municipalities at a crossroads: raise taxes or cut programs.
In Kawartha Lakes, Ont., where there’s no appetite for a tax increase, town has backed away from teaching kids the virtues of recycling.
“Going into schools to attempt to carry the message of recycling, we’ve needed to reduce on that,” said David Kerr, manager of town’s environmental services.
The timing of the commodities crash couldn’t have been worse for the City of Thunder Bay.
When its recycling contract got here up for renewal last December, the worth greater than doubled.
“We went from roughly a $1.2-million program to roughly a $2.4-million program,” said Jason Sherband, manager of solid waste and recycling services in Thunder Bay.
“No person’s thrilled, but at the top of the day, it’s … the brand new world that we’re living in.”
Within the U.S., the financial burden of recycling has proven too great for some communities like Franklin, N.H., and Broadway, Va., which have cancelled their recycling programs. But in Ontario, that’s not an option: communities over 5,000 persons are mandated by the province to recycle.
Exacerbating the financial problem are rapidly rising labour costs. Buyers who’re still accepting recycling will only take the best quality. Gone are the times when a greasy pizza box in a bale of cardboard or a bit of plastic slipped right into a package of glass was passable. Now, plants are being forced to sort and sometimes re-sort products to fulfill stringent requirements, driving up manpower costs.
“It’s up 30 per cent, of course,” said Lorenzo Donini, director of presidency affairs and municipal relationships for GFL Environmental in Western Canada. “That’s at plant that relies on a number of optical sorters and modern technology … When you’re a plant that was based only on labour, your labour costs can have actually doubled.”
At some plants, they’re considering adding staff to handle the strain.
“It’s grow to be a lot work for them to process the stuff twice,” said Holly Schell, Alberta operations manager with Environmental 360 Solutions.
“I just had a conversation today with our … facility supervisor and he said, ‘My guys, this is hard on them, and I don’t know what else to do. We’re going to need to rethink the method and revamp the hours we’re working and possibly get one other team of individuals working an evening shift simply to try to maintain up with it.’”
Realizing they’re going to need to spend the cash either way, communities with deep enough pockets try to get ahead of the curve.
The Region of Peel, Ont., is investing $23 million in latest sorting technology at its recycling facility.
“It’ll open up latest markets, and we expect to improve pricing,” said Norm Lee, director of waste management for the Region of Peel. Lee expects the investment pays for itself inside five years.
The Bluewater Recycling Association plant can be investing in upgrades.
To Veilleux, its president, there’s no other selection.
“Brace yourself: this shouldn’t be a brief thing. When you don’t adapt and modify your facilities, your infrastructure and possibly refocus the materials that you simply actually collect that may be recycled, you’re going to be in trouble.”
—With files from Christian D’Avino