The year began with the Federal Reserve continuing to raise interest rates in an effort to combat inflation. February saw the first hike of the year at 25 base points. March, May and July would see the same increase. In total, the Fed raised interest rates 11 times between March of 2022 and July of 2023.

The full effect of these hikes is still unclear as the “core” Consumer Price Index – all items less food and energy, which measures changes in the price of consumer goods and services less the volatile food and energy prices, held steady at 4.0% growth in November compared to a year ago. At the same time, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reported real (adjusted for inflation) GDP increased 5.2% at a seasonally adjusted annual rate in Q3 of 2023, up from the advance estimate of 4.9% growth. Some believe that the central bank is done raising rates and may start cutting rates in 2024 given the resiliency of recent economic data. Last week’s Federal Reserve statement to keep the federal funds rate unchanged helps support this thinking. However, the Fed will continue to monitor the economy and inflation effects. Last month the Fed said that it’s open to additional interest rate hikes should inflation rise or remain stubbornly high.

What does this mean for the recycled materials industry? According to data from historical Producer Price Indexes, recycled commodities were generally trending down throughout 2023. This has been attributed to a variety of factors including reduced volumes, softer manufacturing demand, and a general downward trending cycle as rate hikes and effects from the pandemic are still playing out in the industry. One recycled material served as a notable exception: recycled paper.

Data from the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) show that paper had major gains year over year (YOY) in October 2023 versus October 2022, with shipments of packaging papers and specialty packaging rising 3%. Operating rates for unbleached packaging papers rose 8.4 percentage points to 88.9% during that same time period.

Many domestic issues impacted the industry, with September seeing the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike targeting specific plants at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis; a strike that affected all commodities. The UAW demanded wage increases of about 40%, reinstating cost of living protections, ending the two-tier system for wages and benefits and job security in the electric vehicle transition. The strike lasted from Sept. 15 through Oct. 30 locking in the UAW’s agreement with the Detroit Three automakers through April 2028, which included a reduced yet substantial 25% increase in base wages and will cumulatively raise the top wage by 33%, compounded with estimated cost-of-living adjustments to over $42 an hour.

The strike put further strain on an already weakened manufacturing sector. Manufacturing was down 1.7% as compared to October 2022. Much of the October decline reflected the 10% drop in the output of motor vehicles and parts due to the impact of the UAW strike.

In addition to domestic issues, recycled material exports saw declines. Data from the Commerce Department show U.S. exports of all recycled materials (including ferrous and nonferrous metals, paper, plastics, rubber, glass, textiles and now electronics) declined 15% year-on-year (YOY) in dollar terms to $22.4 billion during Jan.-Oct. 2023. In terms of quantity, U.S. recycled material exports are also down this year, falling to 28.3 million metric tons during Jan.-Oct. 2023, down 10.3% as compared to the corresponding period last year.

There were rays of hope in the export data with three countries becoming larger importers of recycled materials. By major destination, total recycled material shipments to Canada saw the largest increase in dollar terms, rising 12.7% to $4.2 billion during Jan-Oct. Thanks in part to stronger demand for recycled paper, U.S. recycled material exports to Thailand surged 21.7% higher to $1.1 billion through October. In addition, U.S. recycled material exports (predominantly recycled iron and steel) to Turkey edged up 0.6% to $1.3 billion. All the other top 10 export destinations have seen declines this year.

A silver lining for the industry has been the investments that have taken place as both public and private sectors see recycled materials as the cornerstone for sustainability. Recent announcements include $192 million from the Department of Energy to support advanced battery recycling (June 2023) and $100 million from the Environmental Protection Agency to expand recycling infrastructure and waste management systems across the country (September 2023).

ISRI was hard at work this year creating tools and resources to help you and your company thrive even in the turbulent economic seas of 2023.

Specs Website
In June, ISRI launched a digital version of the ISRI Specifications at ISRISpecs.org, providing an online framework for buyers and sellers of recycled materials across the globe. For more than 100 years, the ISRI specifications have helped promote consistency and quality in the trade of recycled materials in the U.S. and around the world. Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration this invaluable resource is now accessible online to anyone at any time.

Fiber Tool
In October, ISRI launched a new tool to help recycle more fiber-based packaging in the United States. The new Fiber Recycling Readiness Tool is a research-based online resource developed by ISRI that assesses the compatibility of typical consumer fiber-based packaging we use every day with the U.S. residential recycling system. As one of the most widely recycled materials in the world, fiber-based packaging recycling recovers fiber used to manufacture other paper products while producing jobs and protecting the environment.

Plastics Specs
In November 2023, ISRI and The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) announced the latest updates to the ISRI Specifications and APR Model Bale Specifications to include updated recycled plastics specifications. Following a collaborative process between the two organizations and their members, the specifications were approved by both the ISRI Board of Directors and the APR Board of Directors. These specification updates are intended to more accurately reflect the recycled Polypropylene (PP) and Mixed Rigid plastics currently being traded in the marketplace.

To view and use the revised plastic specifications, click here.

2023 Revised Plastics Specifications:

The three approved revisions replace several existing PP and Mixed Rigid specifications to better reflect the scope of what is traded and processed in today’s marketplace.

Arnulfo Moreno

Arnulfo Moreno

Arnulfo Moreno is a Communications Manager at ISRI. He is fascinated by the innovation and sustainability found in the recycling industry. He graduated from The Catholic University of America where he majored in Media Studies and minored in Spanish. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with his collection of short stories he hopes to one day finish writing.