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Municipal recycling is very much alive. Recycling of most materials—paper, glass, metals, plastics and electronics—has increased almost consecutively for the last 45 years, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Challenges in the global marketplace (China restricting imports of recyclables) hasn’t stopped most material recovery facilities (MRFs) and municipalities from collecting and processing recyclables, but it has spurred changes. MRFs are upgrading their processing equipment and technology to manage materials more efficiently and to produce high-quality recyclables. Municipalities are reevaluating their recycling programs, and MRF operators and municipalities are renegotiating recycling contracts.

As MRF operators propose price increases to cover their processing costs, some cities have ended their municipal programs rather than pay these higher costs. For example, Surprise, Arizona, began diverting recyclables to landfill in August in response to falling commodity prices and rising processing costs at a third-party-operated MRF.

Once haulers, processors and municipalities go through these growing pains—renegotiating contracts, retrofitting facilities and educating residents to reduce contamination in the recycling stream—the U.S. recycling industry will have better processes, operations and recycling programs as a result.

Time for change

Since the summer of 2017, when China began to restrict imports of recyclables, MRFs have had to contend with rising processing costs.

In 2017, processing costs ranged from $25 to $40 per ton compared with an average cost ranging from $60 to $120 per ton today, says Michael Timpane, vice president of process optimization and material recovery and a principal with the consulting firm Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The Northeast Recycling Council (NERC), Brattleboro, Vermont, is a nonprofit organization that focuses on minimizing waste and advancing sustainable action in 11 states in the Northeast region. Lynn Rubinstein, executive director of NERC, says recycling processing costs in Maine range from $70 to $115 per ton. Recycling tipping fees in that state are as much as $140 per ton compared with $65 to $85 per ton for landfill tipping fees. She says contamination fees have reached $70 per ton; the prices are constantly in flux.

Providence, Rhode Island, was paying more than $40,000 per month in contamination fees, according to a market update Rubinstein gave in April.

In some areas, MRF operators have shown a lack of interest in submitting bids for municipal recycling contracts, which is what Santa Monica, California, learned when it reached out to 30 prospective MRF operators when its contract with longtime hauler and processor Allan Co., headquartered in Baldwin Park, California, ended in June. Only two companies submitted proposals. Allan Co., which has processed Santa Monica’s recyclables since 1993, proposed a contract that would have raised the city’s recycling rates from $25 to $65 per ton, or $1 million per year.

Based on the city’s review of other contracts, it learned that Bakersfield, California, has gone from earning $25 per ton for its recyclables to paying $70 per ton. San Diego is anticipating a $2.4 million decline in recycling revenue, and Philadelphia’s recycling budget could increase by $2 million as a result of higher processing costs.

According to a report prepared by Santa Monica Public Works, Allan Co.’s contract was a “reasonable reflection of the new reality in recycling.”

Despite recommendations from Santa Monica Public Works, the Santa Monica City Council rejected the contract and is now paying to transport recyclables elsewhere for processing.

DeBary, Florida, also is among several communities to suspend its municipal recycling program in response to a price hike to a previously free processing service for the city’s recyclables.

Going forward, recycling and processing costs, which typically have been integrated with waste and recycling collection services, will need to be separated in municipal contracts, Timpane says. This change will allow pricing models for recycling to adjust when processing costs decrease or when commodity values rebound.

Timpane says changes in municipal contracts also will lead to more public-private partnerships in the industry.

“Right now, we’re upgrading our equipment, and we are not even processing recyclables directly.” – Nick Morell, recycling coordinator, Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County

A phoenix rising

The market disruption has inspired innovation and investment.

The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County has stopped processing recyclables for the time being while the county upgrades its Puente Hills MRF, which helps Los Angeles County meet the 50 percent diversion rate required under California law.

“It’s a very complicated field at this point,” says Nick Morell, the districts’ recycling coordinator. “Right now, we’re upgrading our equipment, and we are not even processing recyclables directly. We’re shipping them out to another local MRF that processes on our behalf until we get our new modern equipment up and running that’s more efficient in managing the material stream.”

State agencies also are stepping in to help struggling municipalities, haulers and processors with recycling infrastructure grants and resources. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) has launched a recycling IQ kit for municipalities. MassDEP also has introduced grants for sustainable material recovery programs and business recycling development to spur investment in equipment and develop new markets for targeted materials, including glass.

Michigan’s Marquette County Solid Waste Management Authority (MCSWMA) removed glass from its recycling program in 2018 and has been transporting recyclables out of state for processing. However, with funding from Closed Loop Partners, New York, and a recycling infrastructure grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the county is building a single-stream MRF and glass processing facility.

Brad Austin, director of operations for MCSWMA, says changes in the global recycling market “opened the door” to improve recycling in the region and allowed the county to “look at things a little different and recognize where we are.”

The county also is starting a separate monthly curbside collection for glass, which will be repurposed for use in local road and landscaping projects.

Shared responsibility

To be sustainable, costs of municipal recycling programs should not rest on MRFs or cities alone but should be shared among all entities. The concept of shared responsibility is becoming a trend in municipal recycling, says Timpane, who has observed more collaboration between MRF operators and cities on education and outreach efforts around contamination issues.

Early mornings, Daniel Dempsey, solid waste and recycling manager for the Public Works Bureau in Akron, Ohio, checks curbside recycling bins. He peers into recycling bins, pulling out unacceptable materials, including plastic film, and leaves it on residents’ doorsteps with educational pamphlets about the city’s recycling program.

While education is only a piece of the puzzle, municipalities have found that a sense of shared responsibility is one solution to curb rising recycling costs.

“A lot of communities have successfully avoided [cost increases] during contract renewals by demonstrating their commitment to get engaged in community education and having a really positive response among behavior in their community,” Rubinstein says.

The author is the digital editor for the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at kmaile@gie.net.