For many airports, their solid waste recycling programs date back to a time when recycling benefited not only the environment, but an airport’s bottom line. Early on, recycling programs typically involved setting up designated bins throughout an airport where consumers could dispose of plastic bottles, paper and other recyclable goods. These materials were later collected, processed, bundled and sold as commodities. Buyers in both domestic and international markets used them as a raw material in the production of other products. Some recycling programs became revenue centers, offsetting costs with the revenue share the airport received from the sale of its recycled materials.
All that began to change in 2008 when the value of recycled paper and plastic began to plummet, dropping from all-time highs to historic lows. Recycling processors responded by raising processing fees and shifting more financial risk to their customers. As a result, airports today pay processors, on average, $60 to $90 per ton to process their recyclables, more than double the rate of a decade earlier. While agreements may call for recycling processors to pay airports a revenue share, these materials are commodities, and their values are constantly changing.
The financial benefits of recycling took a further hit in 2018 when China announced a new national sword policy that severely limits the amount and kinds of recycling materials its government will accept. Historically, the U.S. has shipped significant quantities of recycled materials to China. While the markets for certain materials like cardboard, metal cans and plastic water and soda bottles has remained relatively stable in the months since, the recycling market for mixed paper — a combination of office paper, newspapers, brochures — has collapsed. Recycling programs at many airports and elsewhere have suffered ever since.