Ryan King, a software engineer in San Francisco, celebrates his daughters’ birthdays in November and December, along with the year-end holidays. Toward the tail end of the festivities, he said, it feels like “months of breaking down cardboard every night.”
The stacks of boxes, bags and bubble wrap overflowing recycling bins tell part of the story of a year that has upended the ordinary flow of commerce and its ripped-up, discarded aftermath. The packaging remains of the busy holiday season are destined for recycling plants across the Bay Area. The surge might overwhelm the facilities — if it weren’t for all the empty offices and restaurants producing far less refuse.
At Recology’s Recycle Central, a facility on San Francisco’s Pier 96 near India Basin, cardboard boxes sit on the floor waiting to be sorted, processed and ready to be shipped in bales to paper mills across the country, and to Asian countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
The amount of collected recycling has shot up in residential areas with far more people working from home. But it has been offset by the downturn in collections from offices, restaurants and other businesses, said Robert Reed, public relations manager at Recology.
Reed said collections — measured in tons — usually increase 17% around the holidays compared to the rest of the year. He said it was tough to tell whether this year would see the usual seasonal increase, but in recent days Recology has seen an uptick in cardboard collections.
At Berkeley Recycling, cardboard is sorted by hand, which requires additional labor and time. Whether materials are commingled or contaminated dictates whether they head to the recycling machine or the landfill.
“The good news is cardboard has a steady market as long as the material is clean,” said Jeffrey Belchamber, general manager at the firm.
Cardboard can be recycled up to 10 to 12 times before fibers lose integrity, experts estimate. If a beaten-up box does head to the landfill, it’s at least more biodegradable than plastic.
The industry suffered setbacks when China placed restrictions on U.S. waste exports in 2018 and worsened as the Trump administration began a trade war with the country. The conflict caused recycling companies to scramble for other takers of waste material overseas, mostly in Southeast Asia, and in the U.S.
When the market was stronger, haulers could get over $100 a ton for clean cardboard at a recycling facility, Belchamber said. Today, Berkeley Recycling’s door price is $20 a ton, which makes it less lucrative for outside haulers to pick up the material. City services pick up the slack, he said.
Belchamber said prices are down because there is greater supply and fewer markets, with rippling effects on the flow of cardboard.
“The lower prices for cardboard does not make it worth an independent hauler’s time to go around commercial establishments or neighborhoods to collect cardboard anymore,” Belchamber said.
Other challenges include recycling plants shutting down. Last year, RePlanet, an Ontario (San Bernardino County) company, shuttered, closing more than 40 locations in the Bay Area. Three of those were in San Francisco.
RethinkWaste, a public agency in San Mateo County formed by 12 cities in the county in 1982, owns and runs the Shoreway Environmental Center in San Carlos, which includes a 70,200-square-foot recycling facility that opened in 2011. Joe La Mariana, the agency’s executive director, said he first saw a rise in cardboard from online orders four years ago, as retailers like Walmart stepped up their competition with Amazon. This year he’s seen higher amounts of cardboard from residential areas.
La Mariana said of the half a million tons the center handles a year, about 80,000 go to the recycling plant, and two-thirds of that is cardboard and paper products. About 22 bales of cardboard materials are loaded into big rig trucks a day, eight of which then head to the Port of Oakland with product destined for Southeast Asia.
E-commerce accounts for most of the recent growth in demand for cardboard boxes, and Smithers, an Akron, Ohio, engineering consulting firm, estimated that corrugated material for such shipments is already a $20 billion business. Even before this year’s dramatic rise in internet shopping — a forecast from the National Retail Federation anticipates a 20% to 30% increase in online orders — cardboard was on the rise.
Recology and RethinkWaste have invested millions of dollars in new equipment in the last few years. But even so, to meet this year’s influx, they have one plea.
“People are well served to flatten their boxes,” Reed at Recology said.
That may be a lot to ask for households juggling the demands of the pandemic.
Laura Spiekerman, a Berkeley resident and co-founder of Alloy, a financial technology firm, had a baby the day after Thanksgiving. She received a ton of gifts through the mail, and more kept arriving till Christmas.
“We were … inundated with cardboard boxes. I was stressed about it because I hate so much waste and it was too much even for our recycling to handle,” she said.
Jacob Gibson, co-founder of NerdWallet, a personal finance company, usually travels with his family for multiple Christmas celebrations while visiting extended family members. But this year his family decided to stay home. Presents for the children that are usually hand-delivered piled up under the tree.
“Cardboard is now my archnemesis,” Gibson said.
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