Recycling is not going away

The front page of the Boston Sunday Globe warned of a reckoning coming for recycling in light of the proposed Springfield Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) contract that now requires participating towns to pay a processing fee. Some are hinting that we no longer should recycle because it costs more to recycle than to throw stuff away. Let’s be clear, recycling is not going away.

In the 1990s, Massachusetts enacted waste bans that prohibit most recyclable materials from being landfilled or incinerated. However, continuing with our recycling programs is not just a compliance issue, diverting waste materials for reuse is still the right thing to do. The big question is, if recycling is such a good thing, why all this talk about its demise?

It would be easy to blame China for refusing to accept materials that are mixed with trash, the wrong type of recyclable, or low-quality recyclables due in large part to glass contamination. But China has only exposed how we have neglected the quality levels of our recyclables. Although most of the Springfield MRF’s recyclables do not go to China, we are at the mercy of a depressed, nation-wide, recyclables market. To address this, most MRF operators now include an upfront processing fee in new contracts.

Our new MRF contract proposal, which begins July 1, requires towns to pay a $93.50/ton processing fee. In Greenfield’s example, the Town will have to pay an additional annual processing fee of $135,000 when based on FY 2018’s recyclables generation numbers. Understandably these additional costs may require an increase in the cost of Greenfield’s trash stickers. However, there are strategies municipalities can employ to lower this processing fee.

First strategy is to stay in the MRF program. The Springfield MRF operator has determined a threshold amount of recyclables (17,000 tons/year) must be delivered to the Springfield MRF in order to keep it open. By working regionally, MRF member communities can leverage opportunities to reduce the processing costs. One such opportunity, negotiated with the help of Mass DEP, is a revenue share between the MRF operator and participating communities. The revenue share is based on the market value of the recyclables and will be applied monthly to offset the processing fee. The average market values for MRF recyclables in December 2019 was $22.80 ton. For Greenfield, this brings the annual processing fee down to $71/ton in this snapshot of time. But first, enough towns must commit to keep the MRF open.

Second strategy is to reduce the contamination of the recyclables stream. The new MRF contract offers a $5/ton credit if our recyclables are substantially free of glass. MRF operators do not want glass because bottles/jars break easily during transport and processing and can contaminate other container and paper streams. In addition, glass has the least market value of all recyclables. Glass still needs to be collected for reuse because it makes up a significant part of the waste stream and is included in the waste ban.

If Greenfield can eliminate the approximately 284 tons of glass it delivers annually to the MRF, then the result brings the processing fee down to $66/ton. In addition, the 284 tons results in a cost avoidance at the MRF because Towns do not have to pay the MRF processing fee on this tonnage. However, the glass must still be processed for some type of reuse such as crushed into an aggregate and used as a sub-base in road and construction projects. The best cost estimate for an alternative glass recycling program results in another decrease of $5/ton. The cost per ton to recyclable is now down to $61/ton.

It costs $82.50/ton for Greenfield to dispose its trash, so recycling is still approximately 25% cheaper. Importantly, the markets are expected to rebound which will further increase the market share and decrease the fee. Please note that these numbers are my best estimate, the hope is to provide a roadmap of the kinds of strategies needed to keep recycling affordable when compared to the costs of disposal.

Additional, larger scale strategies include legislating an expanded bottle bill that will help remove glass and other potential contaminates in our municipal recycling stream. Bottle Bill collected glass is cleaner and is the first choice for new glass processing facilities looking for raw materials. Also we need commitments to concepts like product stewardship and environmentally preferable products that makes manufacturers and distributors responsible for the life cycle costs of their products. We need new regulations on specs for crushed glass so that reuse options do not include unnecessary and expensive processing. These strategies have great potential to take some of the pressure off our municipalities that currently pick up the whole tab for disposing commercial products.

Recycling makes an important contribution to a sustainable lifestyle by providing us with the capacity to make informed choices about the impacts we make as consumers of energy and raw materials. Our long history of providing the opportunity to recycle makes it difficult to imagine Franklin County towns without comprehensive recycling programs.

Michael Pattavina is the Franklin County representative to the Springfield MRF Advisory Board and a member of the Sustainable Greenfield  Implementation Committee.


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