hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues December 2018-January 2019


Recycling’s season of discontent

Haulers, local governments struggle as waste markets disappear

A truck delivers a load of recyclables to TAM Recycling in Pownal. The pile in the foreground contains about 1.5 days worth of cardboard recyclables that have been delivered and are awaiting processing at the facility. Joan K. Lentini photoA truck delivers a load of recyclables to TAM Recycling in Pownal. The pile in the foreground contains about 1.5 days worth of cardboard recyclables that have been delivered and are awaiting processing at the facility. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


The blue bins that trash haulers collect at curbside are just as full of recyclables as ever.
But do all the plastics, paper and glass that people dutifully separate from the rest of their trash actually wind up being recycled? In some communities across the region, it’s no longer the case.

Over the past year, recycling markets have plunged into disarray, with prices for some materials so low that haulers who previously received revenue for recyclable wastes now have to pay to get rid of them. One result is that some of the tons of recyclables collected across the region simply wind up being hauled to landfills or incinerators.

“The overall value of recycled materials has dropped 60 to 65 percent in the last year,” said Joseph Fusco, a vice president at Casella Waste Systems Inc. in Rutland. “We’re seeing an incredible disruption of the global commodities market.”

Much of the upheaval is being driven by China, which until this year was buying the majority of recyclables exported from the United States. At the end of 2017, China stopped accepting many types of recyclables altogether and imposed much tougher purity standards for the materials it still takes. Additional restrictions are expected at the beginning of 2019.

At Casella, which opened Vermont’s first recycling center in 1977 and now serves 34 states, Fusco said the current turmoil could force major changes in the industry.
“It’s highly likely that we’re in a new era of recycling markets,” he said.


‘Nowhere to go’
Recycling has long been one of the cornerstones of the environmental movement, and businesses and municipalities began to embrace the concept in the 1980s as new clean air and water regulations forced the closing of old, leaky dumps.

With landfill space expected to become scarce and expensive, and with tighter air emissions limits making it more costly to develop incinerators, corporate and government officials promoted recycling as a way to reduce the waste stream and even make some money.

At the same time, China’s economy was starting to boom. It began to take discards, especially paper and plastics, from more industrialized countries and turn them into new products and packaging for its home and foreign markets.

By 2017, China was buying about 55 percent of the world’s mixed paper waste (newspaper, office paper, magazines, boxboard, and similar papers). The United States shipped 15 million tons of mixed paper annually to China, Fusco said.

Then, late last year, the Chinese government announced it would no longer accept 24 types of material, including mixed paper. It also lowered its limits for contaminants in other waste materials, plastics among them, from 3 percent, the industry standard, to 0.5 percent.

“No one in the world, including the U.S., had product that clean,” said Greg Cooper, the director of recycling for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

And as Fusco put it, suddenly “massive amounts of material globally had nowhere to go.”
“We could find markets in India and Southeast Asia, but they can’t absorb all the material China was taking,” he said.

Cooper said some new markets have emerged to buy recyclable waste, but the prices paid by those buyers are substantially less than what China had been paying.

Fusco said China’s new policy has had “global and local consequences, especially in this part of the country,” where states see recycling as an important part of their environmental policy.


Demand vs. glut
Not all of the markets for recyclable materials have been disrupted.
Cooper said, for example, that corrugated cardboard, which is easily recycled into new boxes, has not been dramatically affected by the upheaval in global markets.

Clear PET plastic water and soda bottles (also known as No. 1 plastic) can be turned into fleece fabrics and other consumer goods.

“There’s a pretty healthy market for that,” he said.
There are also buyers for scrap metal, especially aluminum, which can be recycled using just 5 percent of the energy needed to mine, transport and smelt raw ore.

But mixed paper is the largest part of the recyclable stream by weight. With the options for selling it suddenly limited, and with a lack of options for recycling a plethora of discarded plastics, many of the region’s municipalities, waste haulers and processors are facing tough times.

Trevor Mance, the owner of TAM Waste Management in Shaftsbury, said the price his company receives for No. 2 plastic, the type commonly used in milk jugs, has dropped by more than half -- from a range of 40 cents to 50 cents per pound to a range of 17 cents to 22 cents per pound.
Mance’s independent company collects trash at curbside across southern Vermont, northern Berkshire County, and adjacent areas in New York. It has a recycling facility in Pownal. He said problems with recyclable plastics are just one of the pressures his company now faces.

“Paper is the big drop-off,” Mance said. “It’s fallen to the point where we’re lucky if we have a market. It’s either zero revenue, or we have to pay for it to be disposed of.”

Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law of 2012 requires recycling of various materials. Under the law, haulers can’t impose a separate charge for residential recycling but can increase the overall cost for pickup, Mance said.

TAM offers no-sort or single-stream recycling, which makes it easy for curbside customers to put out a single container with mixed recyclable materials. The company accepts plastics, paper, cardboard, and metal and glass containers.

But Mance said there’s no market for plastics numbered 3 through 7. What the company can’t recycle goes to a landfill or incinerator. It can’t store materials in hopes of a better market.
“It’s too risky and takes up too much space to stockpile,” Mance said. “Everything in the recycling world is just-in-time. If the material can’t be baled or the trucks can’t get through because of a storm, it gets really dicey.”

And some materials, like paper, deteriorate if exposed to the elements, he said.
The market for glass is having its own problems. Cooper said that until early 2018, some of the region’s discarded glass went to a plant in Massachusetts that made beer bottles with about 85 percent recycled glass.

“The company said the market in New England for glass bottles was shrinking,” Cooper said. “It was their own business decision to close.”

But that decision also forced the shutdown of a processing company that was feeding the plant.
Now, “there’s no market whatsoever for glass,” Fusco said.

That doesn’t mean it has no use. Crushed glass can be used as a base for roads and landfill cover, which is what New York does with it. But haulers and processors have a cost to handle it.
“The question is, ‘Does it have any economic value,’ not ‘does it have a use,’” Fusco said.


Local governments squeezed
The impact of China’s new policies is being felt broadly among local governments that provide solid waste disposal services.

“The market has stabilized, but prices are still very poor,” Cooper said.
Rather than recovering funds from the sale of recyclables, as they had in the past, “towns may have to pay fairly high prices for disposal,” he said.

For the moment, the operator of the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility, which serves about 75 communities in western Massachusetts, is honoring its contracts and absorbing the costs, Cooper said.

But in Saratoga County, N.Y., materials collected at five county-run recycling centers are shipped to County Waste, a private company in Clifton Park that announced this summer it would start imposing a $120-a-ton fee to accept single-stream recyclables it previously took for free. The Times Union of Albany has reported that the Saratoga County would face an additional annual cost of $300,000 a year if it has to pay the new fee when its current contract with County Waste expires at the end of the year.

And in the Washington County town of Fort Edward, local officials made headlines this summer when they halted the curbside pickup of recyclables, calling the effort a waste of taxpayer money. The town had been dispatching a separate truck and crew to collect recyclables, but since the beginning of the year, it had been hauling them to the incinerator in Hudson Falls to be burned. A private transfer station where the town previously took its recyclables had closed.

New York law requires local governments to implement “source separation” programs for recyclables that have viable markets, and state environmental officials pledged to work with Fort Edward to find a new destination for its recyclables.

In Columbia County, N.Y., which has its own transfer stations, the county Board of Supervisors recently voted to require residents who take their own trash to the station to buy a $50 annual permit, said Jolene Race, director of the county’s Solid Waste Department. The funds will offset the cost of recycling through Casella, which markets the materials.


Cleaning up recycling
China will still buy plastics if sellers can meet its cleanliness standards.
“The recycling industry worldwide realizes we need to clean these products up,” Cooper said.
As a result, much effort is going into educating consumers about what should and shouldn’t go into those blue recycling bins.

“Cleaner bin contents make it easier for the processor and improve the quality,” Cooper said. “It reduces the overall tonnage” of recyclables “but increases the value. That should decrease the cost for towns.”

Fusco agreed that consumers can play a key role in determining whether their waste – and everyone else’s – winds up actually getting recycled.

“If you can eliminate contamination at the source, that’s extremely helpful,” he said.
Cooper said transfer stations where people drop off their discards “typically don’t have as many issues, because the stations have attendants and it’s more controlled.”

That kind of system is still available in Washington County, N.Y., at five county-owned transfer stations now operated by Earth Waste & Metal, a private company based in Rutland. But this system lacks the consumer convenience of curbside pickup.

Race said Columbia County plans to add workers and do more education with its transfer station staff.

“We’re focusing on 1, 2 and 5 plastics,” Race said. “Casella has a market for that.”
But problems arise with single-stream recycling, where curbside customers toss discards into their bins without supervision. The result can be what Mance calls “optimistic recycling.”
“There’s a big fallacy that just because it has a recycling diamond, it’s recyclable,” Mance said. “I don’t think it’s malicious, but scrap metal and tin cans aren’t the same stuff when it comes to sorting. The convenience of single-stream does come with limitations.”

In a study done in Vermont, the biggest offenders in causing contamination to recyclables were batteries, plastic shopping bags, textiles, food residues and electronics. Although many of these items can be recycled elsewhere -- for example, some big-box stores will take plastic bags -- they don’t belong in the blue bin.

The reasons are twofold. First, contaminants such as a dirty pizza box in a cardboard bale or an old sneaker in a load of plastic can result in the entire bale being sent to a landfill.

Second, recycling centers rely on a combination of mechanical and manual sorting. Inappropriate materials can damage expensive machinery and endanger workers.

Mance calls objects like plastic bags, rope, hoses, chains, and old clothing “tanglers.” They become wrapped around moving parts and shut down machinery. Then a worker has to climb into the machine to cut it free. Lawnmower blades can fall into and destroy glass crushers. Batteries can start fires.


Educating consumers
Last month, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources’ Solid Waste Program premiered five 15-second educational videos, “Recycle Like You Live Here,” in conjunction with the observance of America Recycles Day. The annual event, observed on Nov. 15, is an occasion for governments and businesses to provide education and outreach aimed at keeping reusable materials out of landfills.

Vermont’s new videos are running on television stations around the state, on Comcast, YouTube, Facebook, and among the trailers in movie theaters, said Anne Bijur, an environmental analyst with the program.

“We want to increase awareness of the importance of recycling,” Bijur said. “The goal is to reduce contamination, rather than increasing participation in recycling. The spots are trying to focus on the reality that actual people sort recyclables. The way people recycle can affect the health and safety of workers.”

Massachusetts launched a “Recycle Smart” campaign with 160 town partners and on social media to educate residents.

“It’s going very well,” Cooper said. “We’re trying to help municipalities clean up their stream.”
It also developed a Recycling IQ Kit (for “Increase the Quality”) for towns to use directly with curbside pickup customers.

Workers who handle the bins can leave an “oops” card to let a household know when someone put out a forbidden item. About 20 towns are now participating or are about to, Cooper said.
“We’ve seen a lot of success,” he said. “Contamination levels have dropped by about 50 percent.”

The state is offering towns grants of up to $40,000 to help implement the program. It also offers grants to improve sorting procedures at processing facilities.

Similarly, Casella has its own “Recycle Better” campaign on social media, Fusco said. People need to be “deliberate and intentional” about what they put out for recycling, he said. The company also is investing in new technology to improve its sorting process.
Fusco suggested states could help by changing policies to promote the use of recycled materials, such as by incorporating recycled glass products into construction projects.
“There are a lot of moving parts of the system, and we all have a part to play,” he said.
New York provides recycling grants through the state’s Environmental Protection Fund to promote innovation and market stability, DEC spokesman Kevin Frasier said. At Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s request, he added, the department is working with industry stakeholders, municipalities, academic institutions and others to develop immediate and long-range tactics to bolster New York’s recycling markets, improve the quality of recycled materials, and enhance the flexibility of recycling facilities.


Developing new markets
Supporters of recycling say there’s a clear need to cultivate and encourage more buyers for recyclable materials.

Over the last 20 years, as China absorbed more of the United States’ waste paper, many American paper mills closed. Some can be reopened, but it takes a while, Cooper said.
Massachusetts offers grants to offset municipalities’ higher recycling costs, to encourage investment in sorting equipment, and to develop new markets for certain materials such as glass.
Vermont is in discussions with the owner of a paper mill in Putney about a possible expansion that would increase the in-state demand for waste paper. The state also is talking with representatives of a New York company that could take used glass at a proposed glass foam plant in St. Albans.

“The state is in the recycling business for the long haul,” Bijur said. “We’re looking at domestic markets, and they take a while to develop.”

Mance also suggested the development of more domestic processing facilities could eventually absorb some of the materials that until recently were shipped overseas.

“We’re seeing some domestic infrastructure coming back,” Mance said.
Nine Dragons, a Chinese company that Mance said is the world’s biggest fiber recycler, is buying mills in the United States with plans to turn paper waste in the United States and Canada into pulp and then ship the clean pulp to China.

“It’s doing a huge investment in the U.S.,” Mance said.
Cooper said that in his 25 years with the Massachusetts DEP, this is his third experience of a major disruption in the recycling market.

“People are stepping into the market because they see the void,” he said. “Recycling is a commodity just like soybeans and scrap metal. When one outlet disappears, another steps in. It might just take a little while.”

Fusco agreed that the market for recyclables has gone through a series of up-and-down cycles in the past three decades and is at a low point now.

“We may have hit bottom,” he said. “China may change policies, and new U.S. markets may open.”

But knowing that the market may eventually improve doesn’t make it any easier for businesses and local governments in the short term.

“Recycling is challenging,” Mance said. “Just when you think everything is going well, the bottom drops out.”