Mesa facing yet another recycling cost increase

By Paul Ploumis

RecyclingMonster - Mesa’s recycling program, already running on fumes from price increases, suffered another blow when both contractors abruptly canceled their contracts.

United Fibers and Waste Management both cited declining demand for commodities and lower prices when they canceled their city contracts – using an opt-out clause. A third facility halted recycling after a fire in October.

The Mesa City Council is scheduled to vote on Monday about whether to authorize a $95,000 hike in its contract with United Fibers, based in Chandler, while Waste Management canceled its contract as of May 1.

The upcoming vote only affects the United Fibers’ contract while the Waste Management pact will be addressed by the council at a later date.

Scott Bouchie, Mesa’s manager of Environmental Services and Sustainability, said the United Fibers also is cutting back on what items it will accept for recycling.

He said it shouldn’t affect customers in Mesa, which already cut back on the types of items it will accept for recycling in January. Mesa still accepts all types of beverage bottles and jugs, clean metal food cans and paper.

Aluminum beer and soda cans have the highest value and glass has little value.

Bouchie said he believes cardboard, which is still accepted, may have a resurgence in value because of its use in shipping. Although glass has little value, is still accepted because there is a contractor recycling it.

The long list of items no longer accepted to reduce contamination includes large plastic bottles used for such items as detergent and cooking oils, margarine and yogurt tubs, and paper board used for cereal boxes.

Bouchie said United Fibers is increasing its processing fee from $71 a ton to $82 and is reducing the amount of contamination it allows from 10 percent to zero.

The city’s contamination rate is probably closer to 20 percent, with old habits hard to change for residents.

“We have two contractors and we received termination letters from both,’’ Bouchie said.

He said the United Fibers presented its contract change to the city as non-negotiable, adding, “if they don’t approve it, we don’t have a contract.’’

He said Chandler and Gilbert, who also are listed as partners of United Fibers on the company’s web site, are bound to be affected in a manner similar to Mesa.

A lack of available options has forced another East Valley community to shell out more money to handle its recyclables.

The Chandler City Council last week renewed its recycling contract with United Fibers at a notably higher rate.

Chandler’s one-year extension of the contract will cost the city up to $1.2 million – more than double what the city paid United Fibers last year.

Chandler was earning more than $500,000 just a couple years ago on the recyclables it gave to United Fibers.

If Chandler had not renewed its contract, the city would have had to pay about $800,000 to haul it’s recyclables to the landfill.

Mesa resisted suggestions it needed to raise rates to save recycling, hoping the reduction in the items accepted would cut costs and contamination.

But a rate increase is looking almost inevitable for the program to continue.

“To change a half-million people’s behavior in a couple of months is not realistic,’’ Bouchie said.

City Manager Chris Brady said the problem with recycling is the lack of a market for some materials.

“We call it recycling but it’s not being recycled. It’s just being dumped,’’ he said. “There’s no place to take it right now.’’

Mesa serves 120,000 residential customers who receive a black container for trash and blue container for recycling, both of which are picked up once a week. The fee is the same whether residents chose to participate in recycling or not.

Mariano Reyes, a spokesman for the Solid Waste Department, said about 60 percent of residents put out their blue recycling container each week.

Since a tougher policy on violations was enacted in January.

The city seized 35 barrels and another 41 customers received warnings that additional, less severe violations will result in their blue barrel being seized as part of a three-strikes-you’re-out policy, Reyes said.

Mayor John Giles said the council is likely to approve the United Fibers contract change to keep the program going.

But he believes community forums are necessary to hear whether residents are willing to pay more to continue recycling.

“There will be a public backlash if we ended recycling,’’ Giles said. “I don’t see us saying, you have a black barrel, period.’’

He said customers need to exercise better judgment in deciding whether to throw an item into the blue barrel because a bad decision might ruin the entire load.

Instead of making money, recycling now costs Mesa at least $1 million a year more than simply throwing all garage into a landfill, with the costs now rising even more.

“This is not a peculiar problem to Mesa. This is a worldwide problem,’’ Giles said.

Phoenix City Council recently hiked its collection fee on homeowners by 25 percent, city the continuing problem.

Recycling was once a cash cow for Mesa and most other area municipalities, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But it quickly spiraled downward after China two years ago began rejecting shipments of recyclables because they were too contaminated by garbage.