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The Great Illusion

Curbside Recycling

Millions of Americans pay to put their recycling bins out for pick-up each week unaware that some recyclables end up in a landfill with the rest of the garbage.


In Neosho, Mo., a proposed curbside-recycling program was tabled in September 2009 thanks to the crumbling market for prices paid for recycled paper, plastics, aluminum and steel.

“No one is taking the stuff,” Neosho City Manager Jan Blase said then. Plus, Blase added, there’s no certainty that the city’s residents would get what they pay for. “Whether it would actually end up in the recycling system, I can’t say.”

Berkeley, Calif., is proposing a 20 percent increase in the fees that it charges residents for garbage collection and recycling (approximately $4 extra per month). Meanwhile, the town of Candia, N.H., is running out of room to store its stockpiled recyclables. So are residents of Atlanta. In Pella, Iowa, about 1,000 tons of recyclable lumber were sent to the trash incinerator in 2009.

These are a few of the dozens of horror stories that were triggered by the dramatic drop in late 2008 and early 2009 in the demand for recycled materials—paper, plastics, cardboard and metals. During this time, the prices for U.S. recyclables fell by 50 percent to 70 percent, according to Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. A major factor in that: Chinese demand for recyclable U.S. paper and cardboard plummeted. China is the largest importer of those materials in the world.

Whenever the market slows for recyclable materials, municipalities must adjust with price hikes or changes to their curbside recycling service. When there are fewer buyers, recyclables often are dumped into landfills, warehouses, junkyards and incinerators, says Jennifer Schwab, who is director of sustainability for Sierra Club’s Green Home program.

Indeed, that’s exactly what’s happening in many cities and towns.

“The hope is that eventually the markets turn around and that the material is sold, but I have heard of instances where it gets landfilled, because a community doesn’t have the demand or the space or the company to deal with it,” says Gene Jones, who is executive director of Southern Waste Information Exchange—a nonprofit center for information about recycling waste.

In other words, you’re paying for a service that is not being rendered and instead is being resolved in the opposite way—recyclables dumped into the garbage—from what the service intends. This is unacceptable.

Curb Costs

MONEY BINS. Of course, not all U.S. cities have curbside-recycling programs. According to Environmental Protection Agency, just under 60 percent of the population has their recyclables picked up.

And the price of recycling varies from place to place. When such a service is in place, it costs municipalities from $160 to $206 per ton on average, depending on how efficient a program is and how far trucks have to go between residential curbside and processing plants. The plan is that cities sell recyclables and make money to help offset the cost of the recycling program.

A portion of the cost also is covered in most cities by general garbage and waste-management fees or via a tax of some type. Even if you don’t see an obvious “recycling” line item on your garbage or property tax bill, you should know that it’s not free. All consumers who have access to a curbside recycling program are paying for it—anywhere from 50 cents a month to $10 a month—in many cases regardless of whether it is being used. These fees often are rolled into your garbage bill, so it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much of your bill pays for recycling. Residents on average pay $10 to $25 in monthly waste-management fees.

For the past decade or so, recycling programs have been a revenue stream for cities—in some cases even turning a profit. In 2008, for example, Berkeley made $1 million from the sale of recyclables.

But that’s changed. Prices dipped to less than 50 percent of what they were 2 years ago, so what was a service that paid for itself has become a drain on already-stretched municipal and state budgets. The market downturn is causing some cities (Atlanta and Milwaukee among them) to think about raising their fees. Kitsap County, Wash., already raised its fees $2.79 per month in 2009.  Pembroke, Mass., hiked its annual fee about $30 a year. Other cities are slashing their programs entirely or contracting them out to third-party recyclers.

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The price for recycled paper on the West Coast is $20 to $25 a ton, down from $105 in the fall of 2008, Schwab says. Before October, New York City received around $50 a ton for recyclable paper. Now, it is being paid $10 a ton.

And it’s not just paper that nosedived. Earlier this year, on average, tin was worth $327 a ton. It’s now down to $5 a ton! The price for plastic sank to 6 cents per pound from more than 15 cents per pound. At these prices, Schwab says, cities will have to pay just to get rid of recyclables. And we all know who ultimately would foot that bill!

According to most recyclers, these market fluctuations should have been expected. Unfortunately, a lot of recycling programs started when prices were high. Municipal and private recycling programs that didn’t account for the drop in prices unsurprisingly fared poorly. And so what did many of them do? They heaped the problem on homeowners and residents

“There needed to be a market correction no matter what—it was just too outrageously high a year and a half ago,” says Sarah Kite, who is director of recycling services for Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corp. (RIRRC), which handles recycling for Rhode Island.

Kite’s team was one of the few who budgeted for the major downturn. But those who relied on the high prices to fund their programs now must pay for the programs some other way, Schwab says. In other words, they’re going to charge you more—or drop the service that so many Americans believe is necessary if they are going to be good citizens of Planet Earth.

And that’s the case just in places where there’s a depressed market. Where there’s no market at all, cities and towns are forced to relocate the paper, plastics and aluminum to a landfill or send them to incinerators! In addition to violating the principle of recycling—reuse of materials—disposal of waste in a landfill or incinerator also costs residents money—a nasty double-dip.

“Unlike burning garbage or paying tipping fees to bring it to a landfill, recycling offers the opportunity to recoup some of the cost of waste management,” says Allen Hershkowitz, who is director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) national solid-waste project and  paper-industry reform project. But now it seems to be something of a money pit for consumers.

THE BLIND LEAP. So, how can you be sure that your recyclables are actually being recycled and not just ending up in a landfill or an incinerator? You can call the recycling contact for your city to inquire about where your recyclables are going. They can at least tell you whether they’ve been sold with the intention of being used to make other products, but the tracking typically stops there.

Recycling programs vary from city to city, and there’s no national tracking system. Information regarding what’s being stockpiled is anecdotal, at best. Container Recycling Institute, Greenpeace and NRDC keep an eye on where recyclables are shipped, but their statistics are limited to a few individual cities that they targeted in small studies. You can’t be absolutely certain where your recyclables are headed.

However, there are some cities where you can feel confident that the recycling program is doing its job. Ultimately, the cities that are the best equipped to weather the ups and downs of the market are those that have formed relationships with multiple buyers. Because its recycling facilities don’t have a lot of extra room for stockpiling materials, RIRRC needs “to turn recyclables around ideally in 48 hours,” Kite says. “If one buyer goes down or is eliminated, we need to be able to move immediately to another buyer.”

It also means that RIRRC doesn’t wait for the market to recover before it moves materials. RIRRC took a week’s worth of losses—$5 or $10 per ton for paper instead of $150—because moving the material was more important than the price.

But Robert Reed of Recology, which is the trash collector for San Francisco, says a single-stream program ensures that recyclables aren’t being trashed.

Single-stream recycling is where all materials are collected together, so you don’t have to separate, say, bottles from paper. This method makes it easy for you to recycle and encourages that more products will be recycled and not thrown away, which is the point. But, as prices for recyclables dropped, some worried that single-stream materials were not of a high enough quality to get the attention of buyers in a tight market. Although San Francisco managed to do just fine with single-stream recycling, Kite says it’s not an ideal system when prices for recycled materials drop. And, in fact, the concept of single-stream recycling—that it makes it easier for you to recycle more—means that these types of programs are hit harder when markets go south because they have more materials to move. What’s even worse is that sometimes those materials are considered lower quality than those that come from a dual-stream facility. Paper, for instance, can sometimes get contaminated by plastics and metals at the processing plant.

“We separate paper from plastic, metal and so on, so we have a very clean stream, and our customers are assured of the quality of our materials,” Kite says.

In 11 states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont—beverage-container deposit laws are a decent guarantee that your bottles are being recycled. Because bottles cost distributors directly up to 13 cents per bottle (to encourage recycling), there’s a huge incentive for them to recycle the returned containers to recoup part of their money. And it doesn’t hurt that you get your portion of the deposit (5 to 10 cents per container) back if you recycle.

Of bigger benefit to consumers, however, are unclaimed deposits—deposit money that’s not collected by consumers. These deposits amount to millions of dollars per year, according to Container Recycling Institute, and in most states these deposits, unfortunately, remain the property of distributors and bottlers. But in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Michigan unclaimed deposit money goes to the state, which uses it to fund environmental programs.

A report on the efficacy of New York’s bottle bill, conducted by Franklin Associates Ltd., found that recycling rates increased dramatically after the bill’s passage—to 82 percent from 18 percent for aluminum cans; to 79 percent from 5 percent for glass bottles; and to 57 percent from 1 percent for PET bottles. The study estimated an annual reduction of solid-waste tonnage of 650,000 tons, at a savings to taxpayers of $19 million a year. Now that’s contributing to society as a whole.

WHAT NOW? Although the recycling market has stabilized—albeit much lower than where it had been—the effects of the downturn will be felt well into the coming year. And some municipalities are taking it out on their recycling programs—and you. Chicago announced in October 2009 that it would put the brakes on its fledgling blue-cart curbside recycling program and would decrease its recycling pick-up from once a week to once every 3 weeks. Atlanta made a similar move, and now residents are complaining that they’re running out of space to store recyclables in between pick-ups.

Smaller cities and towns are facing elimination of curbside recycling programs. Southeastern Public Service Authority, which serves eight cities and counties in southeastern Virginia, announced in September 2009 that it would discontinue its recycling programs to save money. It’s allowing the cities and towns that it served to set up contracts with third-party companies to do the job—their job—for them.

Although recycling is affected by the same market fluctuations as other businesses, consumers think of recycling as a public trust. Let’s hope that those who are in the recycling business can successfully regain our trust.

Amy Westervelt writes about green and environmental policy for numerous publications and Web sites. She also is the managing editor of Earth Island Journal.


Recycling’s Global Market Shifts

Recycling is a global industry. The majority of recyclable U.S. cardboard and paper goes to China and India. Quite a bit of plastic heads to Canada. Almost all recyclable aluminum stays in the United States, and we keep most of our tin and scrap metal, as well, according to Sarah Kite, who is director of recycling services for Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation.

As global markets recover, we’re likely to see more shifts that will positively affect recycling. According to Allen Hershkowitz, who is director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s national solid-waste project and paper-industry reform project, legislation to reduce carbon emissions, which is already in place in Europe and is making its way through both the House and the Senate in the United States, could have even larger effect.

“You get a thirty to forty percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions if you make paper from paper, plastic from plastic and so on,” Hershkowitz explains. “Right now, both the House and Senate (carbon) legislation bills have incentives for recycling, and if we wind up taxing carbon in some way, then companies might see a financial incentive in using recycled, instead of virgin, materials.”

The House and Senate bills are far from a done deal, with experts evenly divided on whether they will pass. If either does, it could trigger a greater demand for recycled materials from manufacturers looking to reduce their carbon emissions, and prices for those materials would climb accordingly. As prices for recycled materials climb, recycling programs are better able to pay for themselves. This translates to more stable service for residents and in some cases lower fees.