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Cleaning up our act: Hampshire County feels the impact of global decline in recycling revenue

  • South Hadley employee Zak Jagodowski makes way for more recyclables in the containers bin at the town's transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley employee Zak Jagodowski makes way for more recyclables in the containers bin at the town's transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018.

  • South Hadley residents David Morell and his granddaughter Chloe Hough, 11, deposit large styrofoam at the town's transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley resident Jeff Nugent deposits recyclable containers at the town's transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley resident Chris Fisher deposits recyclable containers at the town's transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley resident Walter Southard brings his recyclable paper and containers to the town's transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley resident Jeff Nugent deposits recyclable containers at the town's transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley resident Walter Southard, right, deposits paper into a compacting container operated by Zak Jagodowski, left, at the town's transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley resident Walter Southard brings recyclable containers to the town's transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley resident Walter Southard deposits recyclable containers at the town's transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley residents deposit trash and recyclables at the town's transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley resident Walter Southard deposits recyclable containers at the town's transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • South Hadley resident Walter Southard, right, deposits paper into a compacting container operated by Zak Jagodowski, left, at the town’s transfer, recycling and compost station on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer
Friday, November 23, 2018

SOUTH HADLEY — As the global recycling market trends downward, the impact of international recyclable policies is taking a toll on facilities in Hampshire County.

In South Hadley, Department of Public Works Superintendent Jim Reidy said that recycling revenue has “dropped fairly drastically” in the past few years. Around fiscal years 2011 and 2012, income was approximately $60,000 each year. Last year, it was $11,791.

Why the decline? The answer is tied to changes abroad. Many people may not realize that the peanut butter jar they throw in the recycling bin in South Hadley could likely end up in a recycling center in China, but that’s where nearly half of the world’s plastic recyclables go. China is the world’s largest importer of recyclables.

And in February of this year, China, citing environmental and health concerns, enacted stricter recycling rules, known as the National Sword policy. These standards bar certain types of solid waste and set stricter rules for contaminated recycled materials.

Some things may seem obvious: Don’t try to recycle dirty diapers or bowling balls. But Greg Cooper, director of Business Compliance and Recycling at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, says some people do. Less obvious: a pizza box coated in grease and cheese or single-use plastics.

With China receiving 106 million metric tons, or around 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste since 1992, the impact of the National Sword policy has been felt around the world.

According to a study published by Scientific Advances in June 2018, about 111 million metric tons of this plastic waste will be displaced by 2030.

“In general, nationally and internationally, China’s policy on limiting the importation of particular waste … due to contamination and setting a very low contamination rate, has had a very dramatic effect on the pricing and supply of recycles worldwide,” Cooper said.

The issue, Cooper said, is a matter of supply and demand: There are many materials that need to be recycled, but fewer buyers. Recycling facilities are also not designed to sort and clean food waste, which means that contaminated recyclables cannot be processed by the facilities and must be thrown away as trash.

But not all of the blame can be placed on China, said Susan Waite, waste reduction coordinator for the city of Northampton.

“This whole thing internationally and especially in the U.S. is a big wake up call for people because we need to get a handle on the amount of waste that we’re creating,” Waite said.

Others in the industry have also pointed out that the National Sword has exposed that the United States has become too dependent on shipping its recyclables to China, Waite said, and does not have enough of its own processing facilities.

A national shift toward single stream recycling has also contributed to changes in local recycling markets, Waite added. With single stream recycling, different types of recyclable materials — such as paper, metal and plastic — can all be placed in the same bin. This type of recycling is cost saving for haulers and municipalities with curbside trash pick-up, but also leads to greater contamination among recyclables.

Although the National Sword policy has had a “major impact,” Waite said, single stream recycling was also influencing the market before China’s policy was enacted.

While it is debatable if the pros of single stream recycling outweigh the cons, “the situation in China has kind of drawn attention to more of the cons,” Waite added.

At the local level, Cooper said that people can help to make recycling facilities more efficient by rinsing or emptying recyclables before putting them in the bin. A pizza box, for instance, can be recycled — but only if the pizza has been cleaned from the box.

“People have the right intentions, but they’re throwing out a lot of materials that they think are recyclable through their program when in reality they are not, so when they arrive at their facility, they have to be pulled away from their facility and thrown away as trash,” Cooper said.

The state’s recycling industry has also been damaged by the March 2018 closing of an Ardagh Group glass manufacturing facility in Milford, which had been a major consumer of recycled container glass.

“Now there’s still a lot of glass getting collected,” Cooper said, “but one of the largest users of the glass is no longer in business.”

South Hadley is currently in a contract with the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility (MRF), which provides its current revenue figure.

The contract will expire in 2020, said Reidy, adding that some communities that are not part of the contract must pay to send in recyclables.

Despite revenue decline, Waite said that this contract offered by the MRF has left participating western Massachusetts communities better off than other parts of the state. But after 2020, it’s unclear if this protection will remain.

“We are used to disposing of our recyclable materials at pretty much no cost, and sometime in the future that is going to change,” Wait said.

South Hadley’s combined expenses related to trash and recyclables total around $1.1 million, Reidy said, with the majority of funding coming from the town’s flat and bag fees.

Reidy put forward two possible scenarios at a September Select Board meeting in response to the nearly $50,000 reduction in recyclables income: maintaining the current fees and dropping the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund balance from $707,316 to $80,930 by fiscal 2023; or raising the flat fee for residents by $15 per year in fiscal 2020 and 2021, which would bring the balance down to around $560,000 — a “relatively stable” figure, he said.

The second scenario would bring the flat fees to $80 in fiscal 2020 and $95 in fiscal 2021; the current flat rate has remained at $65 for five years.

At the Select Board meeting, Reidy said that total operational expenses have decreased for the past five years, showing a drop from $1,330,062 in fiscal 2015 to $1,072,079 in fiscal 2018, which primarily resulted from downsizing staff at the recycling center.

“We certainly wanted to reduce our expenses as much as we could to alleviate the fee increases,” Reidy said, “so we have gone pretty lean there for staffing at the recycling center.”

Other Hampshire County towns also have seen declines in international recyclables markets.

In Belchertown, Department of Public Works Director Steven Williams said that recycling revenue has been trending downward there as well, and that the decline is also related to larger market trends.

Williams said that the general public tends to believe that recyclables are revenue generators, but that factors such as labor, operating and facility fees lead to a loss of money.

As is the case in South Hadley, Williams said that declines in the recycling market as a whole have led to increases in costs, such as annual user fees.

“When our revenues decrease,” Williams said, “unfortunately we need to pass that onto our users.”

Most people don’t like to think about trash if they don’t have to, Waite said. But, she hopes that the changes in the recycling market will prompt people to stop ignoring the issue.

“I think awareness of what’s going on internationally will hopefully be a catalyst for people to look at what’s going on in their households,” Waite said.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.