Soaring recycling costs that show no sign of slowing down are forcing cities and towns to either pay more or cut back on the service.
The two largest U.S. waste processing companies, Republic Services Inc. and Waste Management Inc., are renegotiating hundreds of contracts in the wake of new trade policies with China, which before this year was the biggest importer of recycled bottles, cans, cardboard, and other items from the U.S.
Mixed paper accounts for the largest portion of “single-stream” recycling, where paper, plastic, and metal are placed in the same bin.
Until recently, China was the biggest market for mix paper, but this year essentially stopped taking it, leading to a dramatic drop in prices for recycled paper.
“You wouldn’t think that when someone sneezes in China that we here in Syracuse would catch a cold, but that is definitely the case,” said Michael Plochocki, chairman of the Onondaga County Environmental Protection Committee in upstate New York.
Onondaga County’s recycling contract with Waste Management, which expires Oct. 31, costs $370,000 per year. The new bill could increase to over $2 million for 2019, Plochocki said.
That cost could be partially made up through increased collection fees for residents and businesses, but as of yet, no other changes are planned, Plochocki told Bloomberg Environment.
“At this point there is no plan to cut back our recycling program,” he said. “But that could change in the future.”
At least six towns in Maine recently stopped offering recycling following dramatic cost increases. Officials in the towns of Orrington, Hampden, and Holden have opted to send recyclables to landfills instead.
“It’s a tough choice, but unfortunately it’s our only option at this point,” said Holden Town Manager Ben Breadmore.
Breadmore told Bloomberg Environment that in June Holden’s recycling bill was $20 per ton. In July the town’s recycling contractor, Casella Waste Systems Inc., raised the rate to $140 per ton, compared to $70 per ton for the landfill, he said.
“For a small town like ours to absorb that much cost just isn’t in cards, unfortunately.”
Resource Management Companies, an Illinois-based recycling and logistics company, recently informed its customers in suburban St. Louis that it will stop accepting single-stream recyclables as of Oct. 31.
Nearby Kirkwood, Mo., announced that it will suspend curbside recycling on Nov. 1, unless it can find a new processor to accept its mixed recyclables.
“We used to get paid $15 per ton for mixed paper we delivered. Now we have to pay the recycling center $35 per ton,” said Bill Bensing, director of public services for Kirkwood.
Bensing told Bloomberg Environment his long-term hope is that the market for paper will rebound.
If it doesn’t, one option might be to return to a dual-stream system where glass is separated from other recyclables at the source—in homes and businesses—before being sent to a recycling center.
Single Stream, Dirty Stream
Even as putting everything in one bin has made it easier for Americans to recycle, it’s also spawned a new problem. More people are tossing in unrecyclable items such as electronics, oily pizza boxes, even diapers.
“It’s basically trash,” said Cal Tigchelaar, president of Resource Management Companies.
Tigchelaar told Bloomberg Environment curbside programs became much dirtier in recent years, and he doesn’t blame China for closing the door on accepting so much recycling from the U.S.
“I think they have to get rid of single stream,” he said. “In some cases we may be doing more harm to the environment than good.”
Roughly 20 percent of the material that comes into Republic Services’ Manassas, Va., recycling center is trash. In order to sort out that 20 percent, the company has been forced to slow production speeds and hire more workers.
“Obviously you can’t have environmental sustainability without economic viability,” said Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services.
The company has about 680 municipal contracts currently under negotiation for rate increases, Keller told Bloomberg Environment.
“It’s a common misconception that recycling is free,” he said. “That’s never been the reality. That’s just the way that businesses and governments have presented it to the public.”
But, Keller said, “we certainly believe most of our customers will want to continue single-stream recycling.”
Domestic Paper Glut
Recycled paper accounts for about 70 percent of all recycling, thanks to the growing use of cardboard boxes for e-commerce.
California faces a particular challenge as many companies are required to divert as much as 50 percent of waste from landfills, or risk state fines. With no place to send the material, many processors are warehousing huge amounts of paper in the hopes of selling it later.
But even in states that can access markets, the recent supply glut has still hit recycling services.
‘Real Kick in the Shorts’
“For us, it’s not so much increased operational costs, it’s our revenue loss,” said Dar Baas, director of the Kent County Department of Public Works in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Kent County will double the rate that it charges hauling companies for loads of recycling in January to cover a projected $1.5 million loss for a single-stream recycling program servicing roughly 1 million residents, Baas told Bloomberg Environment.
“We’re still doing all the work to separate, transport, and bail the material, but we’re not making any money on it,” he said. “We used to make $85 to $90 a ton for paper, and now we’re getting zero, which is a real kick in the shorts.”