BRATTLEBORO—As the first anniversary approaches of the closing of the materials recovery facility at the Windham Solid Waste Management District, how is the District faring?
The nonprofit organization’s executive director Bob Spencer said, “we’re doing great, financially."
The controversial move to close the MRF was decided in a close vote by the District’s Board of Supervisors in December 2016. June 30, 2017, was the MRF’s last day of regular operation.
As a result, Spencer said, the assessments — the amount each member-town paid to keep the District and its Old Ferry Road facility running — are way down. “The MRF was expensive to run,” Spencer said.
“But what about the townspeople?” Spencer asked.
In every member-town in the WSWMD without its own transfer station, the roll-off recycling bins — open to all and requiring no individual access fee — disappeared.
This also included the bins at the District’s Old Ferry Road facility; once the MRF closed, the District’s bins were available only to those who paid for access.
Residents of towns without curbside pickup — every member-town except Brattleboro, Vernon, and Westminster — have two legal options for disposing of their recyclables: buy a dump sticker from the WSWMD, or pay a private hauler to take them away.
As some Board of Supervisors warned during the debates over whether to close the MRF, doing so is just a cost-shift from municipalities paying WSWMD to individual residents paying a private hauler.
Selectboards, administrative assistants, and committees in numerous Windham County towns have spent time researching affordable ways to keep bins for residents, but no concrete plans have emerged.
A false hope
For Brattleboro, the decision to close the MRF was guided in part by a push for single-stream recycling.
By switching from dual-stream to single-stream, Brattleboro residents with curbside pick-up no longer have to separate their paper and cardboard from the plastics, glass, and aluminum they put in their recycling bins. Triple T Trucking, Brattleboro’s hauler, takes the recyclables (and the town’s trash) to Casella’s transfer station in Rutland. Casella’s name for its single-stream MRF is “Zero-Sort Recycling.”
Triple T offered Brattleboro a $24,000 reduction in recycling collection costs for the current contract year to switch from dual-stream to single-stream.
This isn’t an unusual move. According to information cited in a 2013 Popular Science article about recycling, 240 of the country’s 570 recycling facilities are single-stream, and 100 million residents’ recyclables end up at a single-stream MRF.
Nationwide, many municipalities have switched from dual-stream to single-stream at the industry’s urging — and with promises of lower costs.
Jan Ameen, executive director of the Franklin County (Mass.) Solid Waste District, told The Commons “the message from the big haulers was, single-stream was created as a cost-saving measure for curbside pickup. You don’t need special trucks” with separate bins for paper and other materials, she said, “You can use trash trucks."
The change to single-stream was billed as a way to protect workers and save on workers’ compensation claims, too, Ameen said.
The physical reality of picking up heavy bins of various sizes, over and over, and tossing them into trucks takes its toll on a person’s body. By implementing single-stream, households and businesses get one large container, and most trucks have a hydraulic arm to lift and dump them. The worker doesn’t have to lift any bins.
By reducing labor costs, haulers can lower their fees, and that saving is passed on to municipalities, thus saving taxpayers money.
But some costs can’t be guaranteed.
The equation changes
A year ago, towns made money on recyclables. Now, they must pay to dispose of them.
A few months ago, The Commons began hearing reports of Casella’s tipping fees — the amount a hauler must pay to “tip” trucks full of trash or recyclables at their facility — going up exponentially.
Spencer sent this in an email to members of the District’s staff and Board of Supervisors, and to Brattleboro town officials: “Casella’s MRF tip fee [for recyclables] has been steadily increasing, and has gone from paying $7/ton a year ago to charging $70/ton.”
WSWMD pays an additional $35/ton to haul the materials, and labor and other costs.
As Spencer explained, as of April, “single stream recycling is costing WSWMD $135 per ton.” He continued, “we contract with Triple T Trucking to haul and dispose of trash [...] and just renewed a two-year contract at the rate of $102.50 per ton."
Thus, what some solid waste officials had feared has come to pass: It now costs more to haul recyclables than it does trash.
Recyclables tipping fees have a history of fluctuation, and Brattleboro’s contract with Triple T has no set rate for that part of the service. According to Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland, “the town pays the market rate at Casella for recycling."
This puts the municipality, which needs to create a solid waste budget for the coming year, in a quandary. According to the current contract Brattleboro has with Triple T, the per-ton tip fee for processing the town’s recycling at the Casella MRF “will be passed on to the Town through the regular monthly billing."
Brattleboro Town Manager Peter B. Elwell submitted the Fiscal Year 2019 Solid Waste Fund Budget to the Selectboard at their June 5 meeting. The budget notes expenses are up 2.7 percent over last year. And Elwell told the Board they needed to transfer $105,000 from the General Fund to the Solid Waste Fund to make up for a deficit at the end of this fiscal year.
The deficit, Elwell explained, “is because of additional costs related to recycling processing,” and lower-than-expected sales on the town’s pay-as-you-throw trash bags. A year ago, Elwell requested a substantial transfer from the General Fund to the Solid Waste Fund, but that was “exclusively due to lower bag sales [because] people are recycling [...] and composting more and throwing away less garbage."
With the cost for recycling creeping ever higher, and in some places surpassing the cost to collect, haul, and tip garbage, will some municipalities choose to simply do away with recycling programs? In Vermont they can’t. The state’s Universal Recycling Law, Act 148, prohibits recyclables from entering the trash stream.
But that doesn’t mean the recyclables won’t end up in someone else’s trash stream.
Sarah Reeves, general manager of the Chittenden Solid Waste District, recently told Seven Days, “What is the price point going to have to be where it’s just cheaper for the customer who buys our product to move it to a landfill in West Virginia or Ohio?”
The China connection
Why did recyclables tip fees increase?
Part of the answer lies with China.
Recycled materials are a commodity. Someone has to want your old magazines and soda bottles for them to have value.
According to information The Commons received from a number of sources in the recyclables and solid waste industry, until recently, China was the major market for recycled materials such as paper and plastics.
China didn’t have its own national recycling program, so it relied on other countries to provide raw materials for its many factories producing paper and plastic goods.
But the bales coming into China’s ports were rife with contamination.
On July 18, 2017, the Chinese government notified the WTO it would no longer accept various forms of plastics and unsorted paper. A September 2017 news release from the National Waste & Recycling Association says, “According to the Chinese, the ban is being enacted to protect its environment and reduce pollution resulting from managing these materials."
“[The] decision to ban the import of recyclable materials would have a significant impact on the waste and recycling industry,” because the American market cannot likely absorb the banned materials, the news release says.
“In 2016, approximately 41 percent of paper recovered in the North Americas was exported with about a quarter of recyclable paper exported to Chinese mills. Similarly, over 20 percent of post-consumer bottles and 33 percent of non-bottle rigid plastics from the U.S. were exported in 2015,” the news release says.
Industry insiders saw this coming, and they provided additional information on why the recyclables market is bottoming out.
In November, Michael Durfor, executive director of the Northeast Recovery Resource Association, told The Commons, “The entire Northeast is facing an upturn in municipal solid waste fees. Part of that is meeting China’s contamination specs, which are 0.3 percent."
“We constantly look for better outlets, such as mills, for non-contaminated materials,” said Durfor, and that means “clean product and a domestic market. [The industry] is scrambling to find markets other than China, such as India."
Switch to single-stream
Ameen, the Franklin County Solid Waste official, is also a member of the WSWMD Board of Supervisors. In the latter months of 2016, during the District’s debate over closing the MRF, she warned her colleagues this change was coming, especially with President Trump’s strained relations with China.
Ameen and other waste management leaders lay some of the blame for the sinking recyclables market on the industry-wide switch from dual-stream to single-stream recycling.
Single-stream proponents say this recycling method increases the volume of recycling and decreases what ends up in the garbage can — mostly because single-stream, with one bin and simple rules, is easier to navigate for most people.
But, Ameen noted, “What’s in there? What’s the contamination rate?"
“People can put whatever they want in those bins,” Ameen said, “because nobody is checking."
People can also put whatever they want in dual-stream bins, but ostensibly, workers at a dual-stream MRF would catch contaminants because it’s their job to sort the collected materials — plastics, glass, aluminum, and sometimes accidental trash — into bigger bins, or, when it’s not recyclable, into the garbage.
Also, the single-stream bins themselves lead to high rates of contamination.
Ameen suggested readers try this experiment: “Put all of your recycling in a plastic bag and smash it.” That, she said, is what happens to recyclables in the single-stream system.
Paper mills relying on recycled paper “can’t take single-stream recycling because glass is embedded in the paper, and it wears down the machinery,” Ameen said.
This, she said, has led to a great loss in the domestic processing of recycled papers, because the costs are too high to maintain the paper mills’ machinery and dispose of the contaminated materials. In the last 15 years, “I would hear that over and over again, that [mill owners] are paying too much to dispose of so much trash,” Ameen said.
Clean, mean, green
A 2012 study conducted by the United Kingdom’s Resource Association found the higher the contamination rate in recycled materials, the higher the cost to manufacturers using those items. Its conclusion: “[...] research shows starkly how notional cost savings in changes to municipal recycling collection systems have simply shifted costs significantly towards manufacturers in the drive for quantity over quality."
“Nineteen communities in Franklin County offer dual-stream recycling, and they’re sending it to the Springfield [Mass.] MRF. They have markets for these materials because the product is cleaner,” Ameen said.
These towns aren’t alone. Articles in a variety of national and regional newspapers report municipalities in the U.S. and Canada are switching back to dual-stream because the cost is lower, and the market for cleaner recyclables, especially paper and cardboard, brings the towns higher revenue.
Spencer assured The Commons that, had the Windham Solid Waste Management District’s MRF stayed open, its members wouldn’t be protected from market fluctuations. The District would have to pay the high tipping fees for recyclables, too.
But, taking into account the experiences of towns that switched back to dual-stream, it’s worth asking if the District could have found a more lucrative market for its dual-stream-sourced paper and plastics.
And, will Brattleboro end up spending more to send its recyclables to Casella’s MRF than it did on its assessment to the District when the MRF was still operating?
It’s a moot point, because as Spencer noted, the Windham Solid Waste Management District’s MRF “isn’t coming back."