How small cities around the country are fighting to save recycling

WasteDive - Hardships caused by China's global recycling industry disruptions have been particularly acute in small U.S. cities and towns over the past year. But in the face of adversity, a number of them have devised solutions to keep recycling programs alive — at least to some degree.

While cities crunch the numbers and try to find economically feasible ways of retaining a recycling program — reverting to a depot drop-off system in lieu of curbside collection, for instance — citizens are also stepping up. From organizing parking lot glass recycling events to biking around town picking up material, local businesses and citizens are finding their own ways to contribute.

"This is the secret to success, looking at it from a grassroots, community-based level," said Laura Leebrick, community and governmental affairs manager for Oregon-based Rogue Disposal & Recycling.

The large and small of it

While the entire North American recycling industry has felt some effects of China's scrap import bans and restrictions, municipal pain has, for the most part, been realized in the form of increased collecting and processing service fees. Smaller cities, however, are feeling the brunt of the blow — their curbside collection programs have derailed, and some have folded altogether.

Thus far, most large cities have been able to protect their residents from the worst of the China-related fallout. But small cities, especially rural ones, have less margin, as recently highlighted by the Pew Charitable Trusts. They may feel pressure to simply end curbside collection rather than wait the weeks or months necessary to ride out the storm – especially because that storm may not pass.

Small municipalities now have to decide what to do "given the reality of China and that it's not changing," said Mike Durfor, executive director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association (NRRA). "People have figured out this is a long-term deal."

"Everyone is being impacted — it's just taking a longer time to affect larger cities.... It's a trickle-down effect," explained Harsit Patel, business services manager for Harrisonburg, Virginia's Department of Public Works. Harrisonburg lost curbside recycling in Feb. 2018 when its contractor, van der Linde Recycling, pulled out due to unfavorable market conditions. The contractor had "hoped for things to turn around, but they never did," said Patel, adding that Harrisonburg "didn't have a choice” but to end curbside collection.

The changes affect small cities more "because of our limited budgets," said Brian Steadman, public works superintendent in Milton-Freewater, Oregon. The city was among the first to end curbside recycling early last year when it lost a contractor as a result of market conditions.

Milton-Freewater managed to re-launch a recycling program in the form of a material drop-off depot with an attendant. That option allowed the city to keep the same rates for customers, rather than incur a massive expense or operate at a loss and hike rates to find a viable curbside collection solution.

"Curbside is so costly with just the physical handling of it.… But most of our citizens are very pleased with what we're offering right now, and it's working well,” Steadman said.

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