Towns in Warren County are going to be paying a lot more to get rid of recyclables that were bringing in revenue two years ago.
The recycling market has collapsed over the past year, and there are fewer businesses seeking materials that were previously used for conversion to other products, at least in part because of recycling practices that have evolved in the United States.
Haulers and municipalities that collect materials at their transfer stations are finding that plastics, metal, paper and cardboard that brought in money as recently as 2016 are now costing them money for disposal.
The change stems mostly from new restrictions and less demand in China, which bought much of the plastic, paper and metal that U.S. residents have recycled in recent decades. The single-stream recycling systems that many private haulers use has resulted in contamination of the plastics, and Chinese customers have rejected materials unless they are clean.
The result has been a plastics and metal can market that in 2017 was bringing Warren County $60 a ton in revenue, but in 2019 will cost the county $162 per ton to have haulers take the material away. (Comparatively, it costs $57 per ton to dispose of trash at the Hudson Falls trash plant.)
Cardboard that brought $80 per ton in 2017 will bring in $10 per ton next year, while magazines and newspaper have experienced sharp price declines as well and will bring in a fraction of the revenue they did. The contracts to pick up the material were awarded based on bid prices, with Casella Waste of Rutland, Vermont, Perkins Recycling of Queensbury and County Waste of Clifton Park winning bids for different materials.
“Last year, we were making more money on these,” said the county’s purchasing agent, Julie Butler. “It’s a lot lower than last year.”
Glass collected by municipalities is taken to a county-owned collection point in Warrensburg, where it is crushed and used as a base for road construction projects, county Public Works Superintendent Kevin Hajos said.
County supervisors expressed concern that the materials being recycled actually go to recycling facilities, instead of being put back into the trash stream.
“Are they recycling it, or taking it to the burn plant?” Glens Falls 4th Ward Supervisor William Loeb asked.
“We might as well just take it to the burn plant ourselves if that’s where it’s going,” Lake George Supervisor Dennis Dickinson said.
At least part of the decline of the recycling market stems from the way Americans recycle. Single-stream recycling, where all recyclable materials are put in the same container for pickup, has resulted in contamination problems.
Dale Cocca, recycling specialist for Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency in North Syracuse, said there is still a market for recycled paper, plastic and metal if it is properly separated.
But one of the biggest challenges recyclers face in getting their materials to market is consumers who put the wrong things in their recycling bins, since the sorting process isn’t able to pull the non-recyclables out, he explained.
“Another part of the issue is that the rules of what is recyclable aren’t necessarily clear or obvious to many residents, and so ‘wish-cycling’ has become rampant, where people put everything in the bin that they wish was recyclable,” Cocca said.
Some downstate communities have done away with single-stream recycling, requiring customers who have pickup at their homes to separate their materials to try to lessen cross-contamination.