Why recycling costs are piling up

Two years after China began constricting the types of recyclable materials it will import from the U.S., the effects of that lost market are taking hold: While recycling was once a promising revenue stream for towns and cities, it has morphed into a cost center.

As a result, some towns in the Berkshires might end up passing those costs onto consumers through higher fees and increased bag prices at transfer stations. 

The biggest impact has been on the recycling of paper products, but the price being paid for all the other recyclable materials has also dropped dramatically, leaving towns and hauling companies to scramble to find new markets for the materials or new ways to recycle or reuse the materials.

According to Trevor Mance, owner of TAM LLC, a recycling processing and trash hauling company based in Pownal, Vt., the recycling market is experiencing some trauma.

"It's a crisis," he said. "There is almost no market for plastic right now. Many of the commodities in the recycling stream are worth much less — and some have no market. We are struggling to make ends meet, and as a result, we're raising prices to make up for it."

Among its many other clients, TAM LLC is contracted by the Northern Berkshire Solid Waste District to haul the recyclables from 11 northern Berkshire towns and transports about 120 tons per month to the processing plant in Pownal.

While some plastics were recently selling for up to 30 cents per pound, now they're only fetching roughly 10 cents per pound, Mance said.

There are some markets and most of the goods are still being sold, but at a much reduced rate, he added. In the Midwest, he said, so many markets have closed that some municipalities have given up on recycling.

In Williamstown, as in many other towns and cities, transfer station fees may have to increase to make up the difference, said Town Manager Jason Hoch.

"The sad thing is it's cheaper for us to get rid of it as trash than it is to recycle," he said. "It's a bad place to be. It's a problem all over and there is no easy solution. Everybody is scrambling."

Hoch said this predicament should cause folks to put more emphasis on reducing their consumption of things like single-use plastics and reusing materials, rather than disposing of them.

The 12 towns that are members of the district are looking at a variety of ways to make room for the higher price of having recyclables hauled away, according to Linda Cernik, program coordinator for the Northern Berkshire Solid Waste District. Some will raise fees and bag prices for their transfer stations, while others might increase other related fees or through taxation.

Across the country, some municipalities are declining to pay to recycle some goods and have returned to the old practice of dumping it at a landfill. The loss of markets for recycled materials has led to suspended recycling programs in several places, including Gouldsboro, Maine; DeBary, Fla.; Franklin, N.H.; and Adrian Township, Mich. Programs have also been scaled back in Flagstaff, Ariz.; La Crosse, Wis.; and Kankakee, Ill.

'It will eventually come back' 

But despite the changes to the marketplace, advocates and some in the recycling business maintain that the act of recycling is the reward itself — in the form of a cleaner environment and less refuse heading into limited landfill space. And they note that markets fluctuate, expressing confidence that prices could rebound as new processing plants open to take advantage of the depressed prices. 

"It will eventually come back to $10 to $20 per ton," Mance said. "But it will probably never get back to $100 per ton."

Mance's company, TAM — one of the smaller recycling firms in the northeast — processes about 40 to 50 tons of recyclable materials per day. 

According to Dylan de Thomas, vice president of national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership, several paper processing plants have been commissioned and are anticipated to open in the coming months and years, taking up some of the slack in the market.

A partial list of these include Pratt Recycling New Box Mill in Ohio (opening late 2019); Green Bay Packaging in Wisconsin (spring 2021), Cascades in Virginia (2021) and Norpac in Longview, Wash. (2020).

And the massive international Chinese paper production corporation, Nine Dragons, is opening three new plants in Wisconsin, Maine and West Virginia during the next two years, de Thomas said.

"The market challenges are there — the mixed paper market was the most severely impacted by the China ban — but some robust markets remain," he said.

In 2015, de Thomas said, mixed paper was selling for $70 per ton. Today it sells for about $4 per ton. That kind of change will cause a ripple throughout the recycling market, and the resulting market adjustment is still under way.

"Mixed paper is still moving — slowly — but it is still moving," he said.

But whatever the recycling market does, that doesn't change the need for recycling, de Thomas noted. "Recycling shouldn't be about money in the first place," he said. "Recycling is its own reward." 

Communities are in the process of evaluating these fluctuations and are trying to find the right balance between expense and recycling.

"This has been a significant disruption in the marketplace," de Thomas said. "But everyone I've talked to expects these markets to come back, so we really should hold the course. 

Through it all, the processors, haulers, advocates and state officials all agree on this: Contamination of the recycling stream is the biggest challenge to maintaining a healthy market for recycled materials. 

When people put dirty pizza boxes, Christmas lights, plastic bags, lawn mower blades, disposable diapers, garden hoses and many other items into the recycling stream, the sorting becomes more expensive and machinery breaks down causing the cost of recycling to grow — which tends to shrink the effectiveness of the recycling industry and the value of the commodity.

"We've got to get people to care about doing this right," Mance said.

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