Sonoco employees work to sort recycling on a conveyor belt in the Columbia facility. (Photo by Stephen Pastis)
A growing mountain of neon trash bags waited each morning at 4 a.m. to be emptied and hand sorted by Larry Cook in a parking lot.
It was July of 2016, around the time China decided it would no longer take the world’s trash, leaving Cook, the director of the Office of Sustainability at the University of South Carolina, scrambling to keep up with changing regulations in recycling markets.
China’s decision to limit its import of waste changed how recycling happened for many in South Carolina. It transformed how America handles its recycled waste and reinforced a harsh reality – that recycling can often be more business than environmental protection.
A business that sometimes conflicts with environmental priorities. One that relies on volatile commodity markets, billion-dollar companies and complicated technology. And one that often leaves recyclable products such as glass or cardboard behind in favor of plastics, which make money but are increasingly seen as a problematic product.
Recycling today is a business that leaves localities — such as Richland County or the University of South Carolina — fighting to keep recycling functional and alive under the changing markets.
CHINA CHANGES THE GAME
USC’s recycling program wasn’t perfect when Cook started there in 2012, but it was manageable.
The university had a contract with an outside company that largely took everything. Around 2013, the year China announced its first restrictions on waste imports, Cook noticed the company that took campus recycling was asking for items to be sorted — they, too, were responding to China’s new policy.
By July of 2016, Cook had completely re-organized the recycling system to comply with the new requirements. But China’s 2017 total ban on non-industrial plastics nearly collapsed USC’s recycling program, Cook said.
“The markets just evaporated,” Cook said.
Between 1992 and 2017, nearly two-thirds of the world’s waste had ended up in China, according to a University of Georgia study, to be repurposed to aid its growing economy. In 2018, when the country announced it was banning all non-industrial plastic waste from other countries, U.S. recycling exports fell 91.4%, according to research from the Plastics Industry Association. Other types of solid waste were banned as well.
Without a staff to handle the new, heightened sorting standard for campus recyclables, Cook began sorting the materials himself, hoping to buy time until he could figure out another solution.
He and a partner would spend days dumping bags in the Catawba Street parking lot, letting it build up until they could hire day laborers to sort it. They used folding tables and surplus bread racks to sort the bus-sized pile of waste.
“We were really jumping through hoops” to sort the waste so the recycling companies would take it, Cook said.
The hand-sorting system would be impossible for a larger area, such as a city, Cook said. Hand-sorting was only possible because of the university’s relatively small volume.
Cook’s system eventually worked. The massive piles at Catawba Street dwindled.
Today, the recycling team works at a new outdoor location — behind the Colonial Life Arena — with hired sorters and a new supervisor.
Lloyd Prim is one of the employees who does the hand sorting. He’s been working there for nearly a year. He took the job to make extra money.
He said it’s tough working in the heat and cold, seeing more maggots and flies than he likes. The smell of rotting beer is a constant during tailgating season. He is well-accustomed to the overwhelming feeling when collection trucks drop off an insurmountable load of material.
“I’ll make an excuse, ‘Well, I’m doing the earth a favor by recycling.’ I guess that’s what keeps me here,” Prim said.
COVID caused another set back, and while Cook said the university hasn’t seen the “miserable and unsustainable” pattern of 2017, the university still doesn’t have a permanent facility. Cook remains a recycling optimist but admits it has contradictions, such as any tool. This can be seen in the very mantra used for decades to raise awareness: reduce, reuse and recycle.
“Reduce and reuse are in front because they’re more effective,” he said. He believes in recycling, but warns that it seems “kind of magical, but it’s not magic.”
A RECYCLING COORDINATOR SEES REALITY
Syndi Castelluccio thought she was getting a simple gig when she joined Richland County in 2020 as recycling coordinator.
“The one task I had — which I first thought I was coming here for a very flowery job that I could sit here and just have fun with the environmental education piece of it,” Castelluccio SAID. “Change the world, right? No. Instead, I need to change the program ASAP.”
The program – Richland County’s recycling system – was struggling.
The county was dealing with similar issues USC faced – recyclable waste was no longer being taken by China. Castelluccio was facing multiple problems, such as curbside collection confusion, inefficiencies and high costs.
But she wasn’t dealing with a university community of around 44,000 people. She was coordinating a county of nearly 420,000 people.
Richland County has some of the highest volumes of waste in the Southeast, Castelluccio said. It even rivals Atlanta because it provides the option for all residents, she said.
Like Cook, she said she was able to create a workable system for the county. But in doing so, she had a realization: Recycling doesn’t magically delete the world’s pollution. It is a business.
“It’s not what’s recyclable – it’s what’s recoverable,” Castelluccio said.
Recoverable waste has monetary value to a recycling company. Castelluccio reworked the county’s program to fit what for-profit companies required.
She said she now sees how many recycling programs are “green-washing.”
“Greenwashing is what makes everybody feel good, makes people feel good about themselves,” she said.
John Ansell, who oversees all waste for Richland County with Castelluccio, said he sees people often don’t realize recycling is a commodities-based industry.
“First and foremost, we are a business,” Ansell said of the county, referring to Richland County.
Richland County isn’t a for-profit business, he noted, but one focused on trying not to lose taxpayer money. And recycling does happen when commodities have value.
There are nearly 550 recycling drop-off sites statewide, and each of South Carolina’s 46 counties has its own recycling program.
But nearly all of those recycling programs work in some way with companies – about 300 of them – that are looking for profits.
Richland County and the city of Columbia contract with Sonoco Products Co.
Sonoco is one of the largest waste companies in the world. Based in Hartsville, it is a near-Fortune 500 company which reported $5.24 billion in revenue in 2021.
The county contracts with Sonoco to handle its recycling.
“They’re the ones that have to sort it out,” Castelluccio said. “So when I’m throwing it in that cart and saying ‘somebody will figure it out,’ well, now I know what that looks like.”
Sonoco’s recycling plant in Columbia is a giant, loud facility near USC’s Williams-Brice Stadium. The machinery runs most of the day, sorting recyclables into large and larger containers.
This facility is called a material recovery facility (MRF) — commonly called a “murph.” After running through the “murph,” the now-sorted material is crushed into refrigerator-sized bales to be sold either to other companies to further process or kept in-house for reprocessing into new products for sale.
“And that’s the thing that I go back to all the time – this wouldn’t work if there weren’t value in it,” Cook said.
From Sonoco’s perspective, contamination of recyclable waste is a major challenge to efficiency.
Daniel Walker is Sonoco’s plant manager in Columbia. He said he often sees bizarre contaminations getting stuck in and damaging the machines — needles, urine drainage bags, EpiPens, diapers, deer carcasses, trash bags, water hoses, rope and large metal items such as brake rotors and hot water heaters — because people do not follow local guidelines found on city and county government websites. Hidden lithium ion batteries and propane tanks also start fires at the facility.
“It’s going to get clogged up, and you’ve got to stay on top of it,” Walker said. “But that means there’s a higher maintenance cost and a higher chance for you to have breakdowns and things to go wrong.”
Contamination makes recycling difficult. It’s one of the biggest challenges to making the entire process cost-efficient, on both the collections side and the processing side.
“Murph” deals with another element of the recycling business: Every material is different.
Glass can be infinitely recycled — the same bottle can be processed and remolded. But it’s a complex material to recycle. And each type of glass must be recycled separately, such as brown glass, clear glass and green glass.
Additionally, there’s almost no market for buying recycled glass — meaning glass recycling only happens if it has value to a company or if the market demand changes.
Sometimes recycling programs even reject glass because of this.
This is the case with other recyclables, too. The many types of plastics, metals and paper each have different markets, and therefore values, to the companies.
Cardboard has lost its market value this year.
The product, which comprises nearly 45% of the waste stream in Richland County, fetched around $100 per ton this summer. Today, its value is zero, according to Castelluccio.
Castelluccio said Richland County is now losing money from the product. In April, it was making money selling it to Sonoco.
“It’s almost a perfect example of when we thought we were through the rough patch and everything looked great” before the value crashed, Castelluccio said. “It’s the market. You play the market. It just means you have to tighten the belt.”
THE PROBLEM WITH PLASTICS
Sonoco solves a problem for local governments — what to do with recyclable waste — but it doesn’t solve the problem of reducing the world’s waste.
For people like Pamela Greenlaw, an executive member of the environmental conservation group Sierra Club, plastic is recycling’s elephant in the room.
Plastic recycling is a myth, Greenlaw said. That’s because plastic recycling doesn’t reduce the amount of waste on the planet. Worse, the process of recycling plastic can pollute just as much as creating it in the first place, she said.
“All the plastics that were made are still with us,” Greenlaw said. “There are three ways to get rid of plastic: You can landfill it, you can incinerate it, and you could let it disintegrate into micro-plastic parts. That’s it. There’s no way to get rid of it. So recycling does not get rid of plastic.”
Greenpeace, one of the world’s largest environmental protection non-profits, recently published a study showing that most U.S. plastic can’t be recycled – all while plastic waste is increasing. The report’s new conclusion: Plastic recycling doesn’t work.
Greenpeace, which has been a long-time advocate for recycling, still supports recycling other materials.
Cook, who read the report, said that while it “defined things in a way that they necessarily hadn’t been defined up until now,” it didn’t conclude anything that he and others in the industry didn’t already know.
The report doesn’t affect recyclers, Castelluccio said. As long as there is an economic market value for plastic, it will continue to be processed, even if it doesn’t end up being a non-polluting, lasting product.
“Plastic is not inherently bad or evil as a product,” Cook said. “But the move that we made to value convenience over everything else in packaging has led to waste that is preventable.”
The Greenpeace report also points a finger at big oil and plastic companies, which have historically pushed responsibility for recycling on the consumer.
“Corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Unilever have worked with industry front groups to promote plastic recycling as the solution to plastic waste for decades. But the data is clear: practically speaking, most plastic is just not recyclable,” Lisa Ramsden, Greenpeace USA Senior Plastics Campaigner, said in the report.
The report calls for corporations to take responsibility and limit plastic production, a contrast to the consumer-responsibility position recycling organizations have traditionally taken.
On the federal level, officials have discussed a national strategy for recycling.
Back on USC’s campus, Prim continues to sort plastics from glass and cardboard. When asked about his personal recycling habits, he said he recycles more now, but doesn’t always follow through.
“Cans and bottles?” Prim said. “I probably should do more. … I guess being here seven and a half hours, I get enough of it. I don’t take it home with me.”
The Waste Wizard is Columbia’s mascot for recycling. He can be seen on nearly every street-side recycling bin in Columbia and has been around since recycling started in Columbia in 1991. (Photo by Stephen Pastis)
The mound of bags of recycling sits in a parking lot for Larry Cook to sort through in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Larry Cook)