Recycling contract has local officials worried about environmental, fiscal impacts

HOLYOKE — One city official is sounding the alarm about the terms of a new contract that could see Holyoke pay for recycling, instead of receiving money for it. “It’s not chump change,” said Mike Bloomberg, the chief of staff to Mayor Alex Morse. He said that Holyoke makes around $50,000 dropping off recyclables — but the new contract would see the city pay around $160,000. That cost could disincentivize recycling across the region, he added: “We are very much talking about the end of recycling in western Massachusetts.”

Bloomberg was one of many officials present at a meeting Dec. 20 in Westfield, where state legislators, city mayors and department of public works directors from the region gathered to talk about the new recycling contract that would, for the first time, see local municipalities paying to drop off recyclables.

Similar meetings are happening across western Massachusetts, where most cities and towns will be affected by the changes. Municipalities are reviewing their options ahead of Jan. 31, when they would have to sign the new contract.

The contract is a new agreement with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, and the company WM Recycle America, which operates the Springfield Materials Recycling Facility. On its website, the recycling facility lists 101 municipalities that drop off recyclables there, including every city and town in Hampshire County.

The contract comes amid significant upheaval in the world’s recycling systems. Until last year, China was the world’s largest importer of recyclables, bringing in some 45 percent of the world’s plastic waste since 1992. But then China enacted stricter recycling rules under what the country called the National Sword policy. As a result of that huge global recycling market disappearing, recycling revenue plummeted.

It is in that context that the new contract with WM Recycle America — a subsidiary of the corporation Waste Management, Inc. — now features “processing fees” for dropping off recyclables in Springfield. 

Previously, communities would receive payment per ton of recyclables dropped off at the facility — at one point as much as $50, but more recently as low as $8 because of those market forces. But now, “dual-stream” communities like Holyoke — where plastic, glass and bottles are separated from paper — will pay a fee of $93.50 per ton with a 2.5% annual increase. In “single-stream” communities, that fee would start at $145 per ton.

Northampton gets credit for the recycling gathered at the Locust Street Transfer Station, but that will likely change. 

“One of the challenges is that it may now cost, potentially, as much to dispose of recycling as it does trash,” said Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz. “It’s going to go from a situation where, in all likelihood, we will be flipping from a situation where we were receiving credit for recycling to have to pay for our recycling.”

Northampton has not made a final decision on whether it will sign the contract. “The regional arrangement has worked very well,” Narkewicz said, referring to the Western Massachusetts Regional Recycling Program, which is operated by Waste Management under a contract with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. “In all likelihood, it will continue to be the best and most efficient way for Northampton to deal with its recycling,” he said. “We’re just trying to understand what the cost implications are in this new global environment around recycling.”

Narkewicz pointed to changes in the global market for recyclables as a driver of the problem. Springfield Materials Recycling Facility  “like recycling facilities around the country,” he said, “were able to sell this recycling as a commodity, and there was an end receiver that would pay for it. That’s essentially now dried up.”

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said the contract will have financial implications. “Like a lot of cities and towns, we’re caught off guard with the financial impact it would have in the short term,” Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said in a phone interview Sunday. “I know the councilors will certainly have concerns, as will we, about how we assume that cost going forward.”

Morse said that while giant waste management corporations are easy scapegoats, federal lawmakers in Washington also deserve blame for subsidizing the fossil fuel industry to the tune of some $26 billion a year, according to figures from the Natural Resources Defense Council and other advocacy groups. Those subsidies lead to more raw plastic production and fewer markets for recycled goods, he said.

“Too often, we put the blame and burden on the consumers instead of the producers of these products,” Morse said.

Morse said that, in the short term, there isn’t much the city can do. If recycling is to continue there, Holyoke will have to opt into the contract and press state lawmakers to help shoulder the financial burden. 

But in the long term, Morse said cities like Holyoke could turn the situation into an economic opportunity, processing materials on their own. Morse noted that there are currently companies in Holyoke that produce products from recycled materials.

“If there is a way we can process materials on our own while growing local businesses, that’s an approach we aim to take,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

Author: Going Green

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