Market Somersault Drives Up Cost of Collecting Recyclable Items in Westford and Beyond

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A shift in the market is prompting changes to the recycling process in communities throughout the country, including Westford.

Members of Westford’s recycling commission are making an effort to educate residents about the new guidelines. But not everyone is happy.

“I want very much to comply with the new guidelines, but I do have concerns,” stated Mark Champion, after he read about “the new way to recycle” in Town Manager Jodi Ross’s November newsletter.

Plastic bags, empty or filled, are not allowed in the recycling bins, nor are objects that can get tangled in machines, such as six-pack plastic rings, strings and ribbons. Ross’s newsletter called for all food or residue to be removed and rinsed out of the container, and required that containers be dried before placing them in the recycling bin or toter.

State policies require communities to keep paper, glass, cans, and plastics out of the waste stream. The system saves money for the communities by reducing the tonnage of trash going to incinerators or landfills.

Chris Macera, municipal services manager of Fall River-based Republic Services, is faced with the skyrocketing costs of collecting recyclables. Republic has a contract with the town to pick up residents’ curbside recycled items.

Until last winter 45 percent of the world’s plastics, and according to Macera, 50 percent of all the recycled volume in the United States went to China. But an ideological change by the Chinese and a push to clean up the country’s environment sparked a startling shift. Companies like Republic went from making money to expending it. A need for additional labor is costing companies between $60 and $100 per ton to separate plastics, paper, cans and glass, said Macera.

“In some cases it’s outpacing the cost of the trash,” Macera said.

In order to unload the recyclables, companies are shipping to developing Asian countries.

“There are certainly other markets out there — Indonesia, Vietnam, India and some even staying in this country. But the capacity that China was taking, it dramatically shrunk,” Macera said.

Curbside recycling started in Westford in 1989, according to Ellen Harde, co-chairman of the Recycling Commission.

“The economics were so simple,” she said. “It cost you money if you put it in the trash and it generated money for the town if we collected it. That’s been turned upside down.”

Without a permanent solution, the recycled items could end up in landfills, according to a report issued in June by Science Advances. A small amount of recyclables have gone to incinerators, the report noted.

Westford’s three-year contract with Republic Services will end on June 30.  The town budgeted $509K for the cost of collecting curbside recyclables this current fiscal year as compared to the $1.220 million budgeted for curbside collection of solid waste. In October Special Town Meeting voters approved an additional $80K to cover the cost of a tipping fee that jumped from $45K to $125K this fiscal year. A tipping fee is the amount charged for disposal based on weight.

Harde said the cost of collecting recyclables for the town is edging closer to the cost of picking up trash. So why recycle?

“Back in the 1990s the Department of Environmental Protection created what is called waste bans and it is against state policy and regulation,” said Harde. “We cannot throw paper, cans, plastic, they cannot go in your trash or they can be rejected at the incinerator.”

Macera said his company would provide a one-year extension to the town’s contract, but the town has so far rejected that option.

“We are putting together a request for proposals to go out to bid in the coming months,” stated Assistant Town Manager Eric Heideman.

In the meantime, Westford selectmen have formed a working group to research and recommend a town-wide policy on the collection of solid waste and recycling.

Heideman said the request for proposals will likely not be released until the recommendation is presented sometime in January or February.

To check on what is and isn’t recyclable, visit recyclesmartma.org.