The state of recycling in Virginia: It may not be going where you think

The state of recycling in Virginia: It may not be going where you think

By Katherine Hafner  |  The Virginia-Pilot

A few years ago when you tossed your cardboard boxes from Amazon into the recycling bin, there’s a good chance they eventually traveled thousands of miles and half a world away to China.

That changed early last year. China stopped taking most of those materials and the recycling industry entered a tailspin as the world’s largest market for recycled commodities all but closed. Prices plunged and with them, recyclers’ revenue.

In Virginia, as elsewhere, some businesses that haul or process our waste have gone bankrupt, closed or moved. Some cities have had to cancel their curbside recycling programs — meaning those materials are now going to the dump.

The commonwealth is working to recover. Hampton Roads, too, has had to adapt.

Much of our region’s recycling — 400 tons a day of it — ends up at TFC Recycling’s material recovery facility in Chesapeake. The waste comes from Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks all the way to the Eastern Shore and James City County.

Michael Benedetto, the company’s owner and president, said the market crash has had lasting impacts that aren’t going away anytime soon.

“Next thing you know we’ve got a national crisis, because you can’t afford to stay in business by charging these low prices,” Benedetto said. “We decided to hunker down and tighten our belts and do things other companies could not do or decided not to do. And they went bankrupt.”

In the wake of China’s decision, TFC has had to renegotiate with the region’s governments, charging more to process residents’ recycling.

It drew attention last year when it opted out of its Norfolk contract, citing China, only to work out a new agreement just recently after a survey showed citizens’ overwhelming support for the program. Chesapeake is now “seriously considering” ditching its program.

Yet China’s decision opens the door for economic development here. Updated paper mills are opening, and Virginia passed a bill last year that incentivizes larger recycling and beneficial use plants. The Department of Environmental Quality has been evaluating the state’s recycling strategies and just released a report on the topic.

The market shift from abroad has forced the industry to rethink its own practices. Where it goes from here is unclear. What is clear is that, like an aluminum can melted down and formed anew, the landscape in Virginia is morphing.

And your recycling may not be going where you think.

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