Toilet paper and other pandemic influences on recycling

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Rolls of toilet paper that left the stores early in the coronavirus pandemic clogged the demand for scrap material used to make it, said Shannon Dwire, the president of Millennium Recycling in Sioux Falls.

Dwire said the toilet paper hoarding was a relatable factor in the recycling market. “You see what happens when people panic buy,” Dwire said.

Consumers bought up large quantities of toilet paper and stored them which, along with other factors, caused a slow-down in the need for the scrap paper material used in making toilet paper, Dwire said.

“Mills were so full of scrap material that we could not get rid of (recycled) office paper,” Dwire said.

A May 19, 2020, study published by North Carolina State University noted that when hoarding started people were at home, they bought toilet paper as the same time the commercial demand was decreasing. An April 2 story published by Marker Medium said commercial toilet paper uses more recyclable material than the toilet paper used in homes.

Once the hoarding began to slow and other factors improved, the demand for recyclables such as office paper increased, Dwire said.

The markets for scrap paper picked up but not for aluminum cans.

Dwire and Matt Kinsley, the manager of R & T Unit Can Company, said market price for aluminum cans is still low but both businesses are accepting cans. They also have end users who buy them.

Stay at home changes recycling

“COVID has changed the make-up,” Dwire said of the sources of recycling in its service area of at least 300 miles. Millennium’s customers include the cities of Huron, Mitchell and Yankton in addition to Sioux Falls. It also works with haulers in several counties.

More people were eating at home, buying food from grocery stores, using carryout from restaurants and working at home, Dwire said. All that staying at home created more recycling from homes, she said.

“We are seeing a huge difference in our mix,” Dwire said.

The pandemic also changed the amounts and the sources of scrap metal for R & T, Kinsley said.

R & T’s main materials are aluminum cans and scrap metal. It gathered 1.8 million pounds in 2020 and 1.9 million in 2019, Kinsley said.

Early in the pandemic, when the weather was colder, people were not bringing as much metal in from do-it-yourself plumbing projects and the like, he said.

“The last half of the year it really picked up,” Kinsley said.

The business also receives scrap metal from commercial plumbers and electricians on new construction projects. “That was just as steady as normal. There were no hiccups,” Kinsley said.

Dwire said there were changes with cardboard material.

She expected a larger increase in cardboard material since people seemed to be ordering items for home delivery. Those packages often used cardboard boxes.

Millennium tracks cardboard as a separate material. The separate material amount was down by 4.4%. But the company shipped about 1.1% to 1.2% more total cardboard, which includes cardboard from single stream.

There was less cardboard from business sources but more from single stream such as residences.

There may have been changes in recycling in the area but the city of Sioux Falls reported a decrease in the amount of single stream recyclables from Lake, Lincoln, McCook, Minnehaha and Turner Counties.

The five counties recycled 43,182 tons of materials in 2020. That is less than the 45,452 tons in 2019.

Millennium had an increase in its single stream tons from 20,530 in 2019 to 22,300 in 2020, Dwire said.

Markets for recyclables

Whenever material is recycled, there needs to be a market or an end use.

Brian Walsh of the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources said in the past two years, four recycling facilities in the state have changed what material they accept.

“One of these facilities is no longer accepting any recyclables,” Walsh said.

“The main reason for the changes has been the low or negative value for some recyclable materials, such as mixed residential paper and curbside collected film plastic,” Walsh said in an email to KELOLAND News.

Millennium banned plastic bags 18 months ago, Dwire said. “They’d get caught in equipment…,” Dwire said.

Handling plastic bags was labor intensive, Dwire said.

Kinsley said R & T is the only company in Sioux Falls that is accepting aluminum cans. That is in part because of the low price and he’s also heard because of concerns with COVID-19 and handling cans.

Recycling businesses also made other changes because of influences in the market, Walsh said.

“Domestic markets for recyclables were flooded after China enacted their National Sword policy, which banned most recyclables from entering their country,” Walsh said. “The additional recyclables staying in the domestic market caused prices to drop.  There are also very limited domestic markets for some materials, such as curbside collected film plastic.”

“The China bans have impacted other businesses more than us,” Dwire said. Millennium has focused on domestic markets for recycling, she said. “We didn’t run into where we couldn’t ship (material),” Dwire said.

What to do with your plastic bags after recycling company won't accept them

Millennium follows markets in the industry including through a subscription to a marketing service. Market prices are released monthly and work like farm commodity prices, she said.

Prices can allow for rebates to recycling haulers, Dwire said. Rebates are like savings passed to the hauler, which can, in turn, be passed onto customers or become a way haulers offset the cost of tipping fees paid to the recycling company like Millennium.

Some large quantity by the ton recycling generated by businesses will require a rebate in their contracts with haulers, Dwire said.

“We rebate by the ton and it depends on the prices each month,” Dwire said.

Items received by R & T and Millennium are all shipped to buyers or markets outside South Dakota.

“There are no end markets in South Dakota for curbside collected recycles but there are a few end markets for wood waste,” Walsh said.

Kinsley said aluminum cans are shipped to Minneapolis and turned back into cans.

Minneapolis is also the destination for tin food cans and glass bottles from Millennium, Dwire said. The cans go into a smelter and the glass returns to glass bottles.

Cardboard is shipped to sites in Minnesota and Iowa, Dwire said.

Aluminum cans from Millennium are shipped to the southeast U.S. such as Kentucky. Large aluminum companies convert them to sheet metal.

Plastic bottles also have more than one destination. Some are converted into the green plastic baskets that hold strawberries, Dwire said.

When it comes to doing business, “Quantity in recycling is value,” Dwire said.

It takes 1,200 aluminum cans alone to make one 40-ton brick for shipping, Kinsley said.

Ship out

R & T handles only aluminum cans and scrap metal. The business handled about 30,000 pounds per week in 2020, Kinsley said.

In general, about two semi trucks full a week haul material to market, he said.

Although Millennium handles more material, Dwire said, “we’re a small facility.”

The business processes about 15 to 18 tons of material per hour, Dwire said. “We run as much as the facility can handle…,” Dwire sid.

Millennium ships by truck and by rail. Most material is shipped by truck. On average, 12 semi-trucks leave per week, Dwire said.

Room for more?

Based on recycling rates for the city of Sioux Falls from 2016 to 2019, there is room for more recycling.

The rate is based on the amount of solid waste recycled in the counties of Lake, Lincoln, McCook, Minnehaha and Turner, according to the city of Sioux Falls. The total recyclables are divided by the combined total waste and total recycled.

The recycling rate for 2019 was 22.5 % down from the prior year’s 23.4%.

In Minnesota, for example, the rate recycling and organics collection grew to 45.9% of the solid waste stream in 2018, according to Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Iowa’s is about 30%, according to the Iowa State Extension Service.

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