Is it time for recycling programs to go single stream?
By BRIAN MOLONGOSKIbmolongoski@wdt.netIn April 2017, the village of Black River decided to do something different. The Village Board opted to end its long-used system of collecting recyclables sorted by residents at the curb and go single-stream, in which homeowners can put all of their recyclables into one container. As a requirement, garbage is now collected in clear plastic bags to ensure they’re free of recyclables, and all recyclables are shipped to Syracuse instead of to the Jefferson County transfer station in Pamelia.Months after the change, the village already began seeing the results. Stephen Lillie, superintendent of Public Works in Black River, said recycling participation not only increased 16 percent, but the amount of solid waste picked up by his trucks decreased by 23 tons as well. In addition to a decreased tipping fee cost, the time Mr. Lillie’s workers spend collecting recyclables was cut in half, leading to cost savings of around $1,500.“It used to be, ‘how many recycling days until I retire?’” Mr. Lillie quipped. Black River is one of just a few municipalities in Jefferson County that have gone single-stream, the others being the villages of Brownfield and Glen Park. But the county itself does not yet utilize a single-stream system, unlike its three neighboring counties. The Jefferson County Board of Legislators has cautiously danced around the idea for several years, with legislators citing economic troubles with the county’s transfer station and the high volatility of the recyclables market as areas of concern over whether single-stream would be economically feasible.THE TRANSFER STATIONA source-separation recycling system has been used there since then, meaning residents have to physically sort their materials into different categories before haulers can take them over to the county’s recycling transfer station on Route 12 in the town of Pamelia. The county has operated the transfer station since 1991. Recyclables, including plastic containers, cardboard and paper products brought there by residents, are then sold to brokers at market price.Material sales typically cover about 25 percent of the station’s operating cost, with the balance covered by tipping fees paid by haulers that bring solid waste to the site. Solid waste is trucked over to the Development Authority of the North Country landfill in the town of Rodman.In recent years, however, the transfer station has hit some financial trouble. Though the operation is supposed to function solely on an enterprise fund, meaning it uses any revenues it generates to pay off expenses, it has been bleeding money because the value of recyclables has decreased. The amount of solid waste going to the transfer station has also decreased from over 31,000 tons in 2011 to about 28,000 tons in 2016. Additionally, the county is still paying off facility improvements made in 2010 that were mandated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. As a result of these factors, the county has had to tap into its general fund to keep the operation financially solvent.Looking ahead, the county has to consider recent, significant changes in the recyclables, as China continues its restrictions on several types of plastics and mixed paper. China took in about 7.3 billion tons of the world’s recycling in 2016, according to the New York Times, with the United States exporting roughly 13 million tons of scrap paper and 1.42 million tons of scrap plastic to China each year. China’s new policy — an effort to reduce the amount of cheap recyclables it accepts — went into effect Jan. 1. In the United States, this could render mixed paper recyclables that come out of materials recovery facilities, or MRFs, essentially unmarketable. While papers and plastics are separated at a MRF, it does not mean that all recyclables that go through a MRF are not contaminated by other materials, as single-stream systems allow for all materials to be put in one container from the get-go. Emily M. Albright, recycling director at Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority in Rome, said that because of these Chinese restrictions, more time is being used to ensure the recyclables it sells to brokers are of the highest quality. Oneida-Herkimer processed 41,800 tons of recyclables in 2017. When materials are sorted by its MRF, they are compacted into bales. Ms. Albright said the authority has taken a closer look at these bales to see if contaminants would decrease the quality. If so, the materials are trashed. Spending more time to examine each bale does slow down the process, Ms. Albright noted, in addition to an uptick in garbage and recyclables because of the holidays. “Because we are seeing these materials, it does slow us down a bit,” she said. And while single-stream recycling does generally increase participation from consumers, she said it does lead to increased contamination by nonrecyclable materials being thrown into the mix.“We always tell people, ‘if in doubt, throw it out,’” she said. But Ms. Albright said the Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority has not yet experienced a negative impact from the Chinese restrictions because they are being more careful, and the cost of a slower system is less than not being able to sell quality materials. Presently, China’s policy currently does not have a big impact on Jefferson County because recyclables are still sorted by residents. Thus, paper and plastic recyclables that go through the transfer station are cleaner and of higher quality, giving them a better chance of being profitable. But if Jefferson County went single-stream and, say, built its own MRF facility, it would inherit the same market uncertainty that companies like Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority deal with. ALTERNATIVE OPTIONSIn November 2017, the Jefferson County Legislature released a report examining the long-term viability of the operation and outlining potential changes, including a transition to single-stream. The county could decide to implement single-stream and transport the recyclables to an MRF facility in Syracuse or Rome, but at over 8,000 tons per year, additional transportation costs could run between $344,000 and $720,000. This system would also mean that the county would lose $400,000 in annual revenue generated from the source separation system. With other capital costs factored in, annual operation costs could see a cost increase between 10.2 percent and 21.4 percent, the report states. But building an MRF in Jefferson County would be more financially feasible if the county can capture between 10,000 and 20,000 tons of recyclables. The report notes that taking in the maximum amount of recyclables from Jefferson (particularly Fort Drum), Lewis and St. Lawrence counties combined could make this option more attractive than the transportation strategy if it is maintained annually and the market rate for recyclables remains high enough. But taking the MRF route does come with a level of risk, as the county would have to compete with privately-owned MRFs to capture recyclables. Initial capital costs for a MRF, estimated in the report, would run between $1.2 million and $2 million, and additional workers would have to be hired. A new ad hoc committee will be formed to explore this particular option sometime in the near future.Philip N. Reed, the Legislature’s General Services chairman, warned that whatever option the legislature eventually chooses, it needs to be able to quickly react to future market pressures (such as the recent Chinese restrictions) to avoid financial losses.“We’re never going to rule out single-stream,” Mr. Reed said. “We just need to realize the risk-reward factor. Once you go single-stream, there is no going back.” The possibility of selling the operation to a private company also is on the table. The Legislature’s report even floats the idea of allowing DANC to assume complete control of the transfer station. DANC INCENTIVESDANC, which has operated its Rodman landfill since 1992, has already made its own efforts to increase recycling in the region. With much of the landfill’s infrastructure now beyond its 20-year life span, DANC has recently completed $8.5 million in facility improvements, including new truck scales, an expanded administration building and new storage tanks for landfill runoff.In the next few years, DANC will be taking on an $18 million expansion project for the landfill. The authority now owns about 76 acres just south of the current landfill, and the new land will be used for an expansion of the landfill and for other purposes.DANC takes trash from Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties at the landfill. To help reduce the amount of waste brought there and increase recycling participation, DANC has initiated its own investments into recycling programs.Toward the end of 2015, DANC began a recycling incentive program for the counties it serves. The program calls for the authority to contribute one-third, or 33 percent, toward capital investments made by counties for the implementation of single-stream recycling, with the amount capped at $100,000 per county. Counties will also get a reimbursement of $5 per ton for recyclables delivered to single-stream recycling facilities.
Source: Watertown Daily Times Latest News
Is it time for recycling programs to go single stream?